With the introduction of video assistant refereeing (VAR) in the English Premier League in 2019, fans were promised the elimination of refereeing mistakes in key moments of a soccer match. Despite initial opinions that VAR ruins the excitement of a goal or a penalty awarded — as fans may hesitate to celebrate a goal due to the possibility of it being overturned — it had been implemented relatively successfully in other leagues and competitions before the Premier League, including the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. However, the implementation of VAR in English top-flight soccer has arguably caused more controversy than prevented it.
I believe most of the controversy can be categorized into three key issues with the VAR system in England; two of them are issues that are widely talked about. Firstly, VAR can only correct ‘clear and obvious errors’ —if there is any reason to support the on-field decision, the decision stands. This has caused controversy as everyone has a differing view on what constitutes a ‘clear and obvious error.’ Secondly, VAR can only be used in limited scenarios, as using the system on every decision can be very time-consuming and stop any momentum a team might have. VAR can only be used for direct red cards; it cannot be used to look at decisions involving second yellow cards. In the 2020 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea, in which Arsenal won 2-1 to win their fourteenth FA Cup, the decision to give a second yellow card to Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic for a late tackle on Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka could not be looked at by VAR. Footage from multiple angles showed that it was Xhaka that stepped on Kovacic’s foot. Then-Chelsea manager Frank Lampard said in his post-match press conference that it was “not a sending off for Kovacic. That was pretty clear.” The incident left many soccer fans wondering what is the point of VAR if it cannot be used in such a decisive moment in a match so important as the FA Cup Final.
However, in addition to these two elements, I believe there is a third issue that is not talked about enough. In my opinion, the introduction of VAR has pressured referees to strictly follow the letter of the law in key decisions, while prior to VAR, they may have made decisions according to the spirit of the law. Referees now have no excuse to not officiate exactly as in the rulebook whereas before, they may have relied on their intuition to make key decisions. This is, of course, partly an improvement. Implicit biases and moments of inattention are factors that affect referees too. Being able to see the incident in slow motion and focusing solely on the incident can help to eliminate those mistakes. However, officiating purely according to the rulebook can create perplexing key refereeing decisions that go against the spirit of soccer as a sport.
For example, when Arsenal visited the Molineux Stadium to face Wolverhampton Wanderers in February, Arsenal fans were left furious after a decision in the dying minutes of the first half by referee Craig Pawson to send off Arsenal defender David Luiz after accidentally clipping Wolves striker Willian Jose in the box, stopping a clear goal-scoring opportunity for the hosts. The common sentiment among Arsenal fans online was that a penalty was rightly given but that VAR’s decision to hand Luiz a straight red card was harsh. Technically, the decision was correct. David Luiz’s foul on Willian Jose in the penalty box was deemed to be a Denial of a Goalscoring Opportunity (DOGSO). Prior to a rule change in 2017, every DOGSO was awarded a red card. However, the rule change, intended to prevent the double jeopardy of a red card and a penalty for unintentional tackles, made it so that if the offender ‘challenged the ball’ and accidentally fouled an attacker, they would get away with a yellow card and a penalty instead of a red and a penalty. Crucially, this rule change did not apply for cases in which the defender did not challenge the ball nor the attacker, which is what happened in Arsenal’s match at the Molineux. Luiz, perhaps learning from a previous red card (against Chelsea in January 2020), did not attempt to tackle Willian Jose but instead accidentally clipped Willian Jose’s foot with his knee while running across him. It seems unlikely from my point of view that the rule change deliberately excluded cases in which the defender does not challenge the ball nor the attacker. Coupled with the fact that ‘not playing/challenging the ball’ generally refers to deliberately going for the attacker, it just seems ridiculous that a rule change intended to prevent a harsh punishment for a defender excludes cases in which the defender is trying as much as possible to not break a rule. Referee Craig Pawson initially awarded a yellow to Luiz—perhaps based on his previous rulings or the intuitive feeling (that I believe most soccer fans would have had) that an accidental clip does not warrant a sending off. I believe the spirit of the rule change was to award just a yellow for all accidental DOGSOs in the box. Nevertheless, the rules of the game backed the VAR officials’ final decision to award a red card to Luiz.
But is it really worth sacrificing the spirit of the game, specifically the spirit of the rule change, in this case, to follow the letter of the law exactly? Soccer, at its core, is an invasion game in which 11 players (on each team) use their feet to place the ball in the opposition’s goal. The rules of the game should aim to make soccer as fair, entertaining, and safe as possible. The offside rule was created to prevent ‘goal hanging’ and was intended to make the sport more exciting for spectators. Yellow and red cards are awarded to reduce professional fouls and dangerous tackles to make the sport fairer and safer. Similarly, the DOGSO rule change was enacted to make the game fairer for defenders—to prevent harsh punishments for accidental fouls. Awarding a red card on the basis of the lack of specificity in the rulebook defeats the purpose of the rule change. The rulebook cannot cover every single scenario in soccer, so referees must interpret certain situations based on the spirit of the game. With VAR, referees are stripped of the ability to make intuitive decisions in real-time, and fans partially stripped of the entertainment that soccer once gave.