“The game is gone”. This is a statement I have heard quite a few times in recent days. It is made in reference to video assistant referee (VAR) decisions which to many, me included, are ruining the game of football.
To understand why, I offer some institutional explanations for the problems of VAR and explain what I believe – admittedly using anecdotal evidence only – is undercutting the very fabric of the game.
Football has its origins in the Victorian schools of England in the middle of the nineteenth century. People would come together, distinguished by different coloured caps (e.g., red caps vs blue caps) and kick a ball around a field. Various rules were employed, depending on the location of the school, and collectively these games became known as "Invasion sports". The term was used as the objective of both teams was to invade the territory of the opposition to score points, while also attempting to keep the opposing team from scoring in their end.
As differences began to emerge in how formal rules were applied, different codes emerged. For example, rugby football permitted the use of one’s hands whereas association football did not.
It was at this time the first widely used codified set of rules for association football – The Sheffield Rules – were written and presented at the Adelphi Hotel in the city on the 28th October 1858.
Controversy also emerged around offside rules. To this day, a player is considered offside in rugby if he or she is ahead of the ball. Football was the same in the mid-1800s. Gradually the rules started to change, whereby a player could be ahead of the ball if a certain number of defenders were between that player and the goal, when the ball was kicked.
As the formal rule was changed, informal institutions began to emerge. This included customs, norms of behaviour and habits. Whilst not directly captured by the formal institutional constraints of the game, they are equally important as they go to the very core of what it means to play football. Today they include behaviours such as kicking a ball from play for an injured opponent, returning the ball to the opposition when they have conceded possession to assist an injured opponent or shaking hands at the end of the game.
The football we watch on our televisions today are based on a set of institutional constraints – both formal and informal laws – that have their origins in Victorian Britain. They were not written with the technological change that has occurred since in mind. One of the original rules states that: “A ball in touch is dead.”
At no point did the rule makers back in 1858 state that this would include the full circumference of the ball. How could they have possibly imagined that by the 2020s technology would exist that allows a VAR to communicate with the on-field referee, freeze-frame a moment of play and drop an imaginary line from the edge of the spherical ball to test whether the entirety of the ball had crossed the entirety of the white-line marking the parameters of the pitch. Japan versus Spain, and more recently, Newcastle versus Arsenal come to mind.
The rules were not written for this sort of testing. It is almost scientific. Football is not science. It is emotions, habits, customs, judgements, normative behaviours, spontaneous, and many other things. It should not be scientific. The economic definition might be that it is a series of decisions, made under constrained optimisation, where agents seek to maximise both individual outcomes and outcomes for the group.
The application of VAR has attempted to put the parameters of science onto an institutional structure that is not fit for purpose. It has resulted in an undercutting of referee authority and a sequence of events that have made referees appear largely incompetent.
The irony in all this of course is that VAR was introduced to do the opposite. It sought to help referees and remove controversy. What has gone wrong?
It appears to me that referees are no longer officiating the game how they used to. Instead of calling decisions as they see them, they are instead allowing play to continue, and deferring to VAR. This is an unintended consequence of VAR and is probably observed best by consideration of type 1 and type 2 errors in the game today.
A type 1 error is a false-positive. This error occurs if an investigator (referee) rejects a null hypothesis that is true. A type 2 error (false-negative) occurs if the investigator (referee) fails to reject a null hypothesis that is actually false.
In football a Type 1 error would be the awarding of a penalty by a referee for a foul that isn’t deemed so by VAR. The referee would then have to consult the monitor and decide it was not a penalty and proceed in an appropriate way. From my viewing of the game, this almost never happens. An occasion when you may see it is when a red card is rescinded.
A type 2 error is observed almost all the time. The referee fails to award a penalty, red card, etc. and then subsequently halts the game to be told otherwise by VAR. We see this in almost every game now. It happened in the Champions League last night when Marcus Rashford was sent off several minutes after a tackle.
So why are almost all the errors Type 2? Assuming VAR has not altered the behaviour of referees, one could reasonably expect a random distribution of type 1 and type 2 errors. Referees see some fouls which are not and miss others which are.
It appears to me that referees are allowing the game to continue, knowing that VAR can correct type 2 errors which may lead to less embarrassment than the correction of type 1 errors. For example, it may be easier to say “I didn’t see that as my view was obscured” rather than say “I thought I saw that but actually I was wrong”. If this is a situation that is occurring, two or more games are effectively running concurrently. The game you are watching and the game that may happen once VAR intervenes.
And there is a further problem now. The formal requirement of VAR means that it will only overrule a decision that is clearly wrong. This is fine if the officials are working under pre-VAR conditions. But if their behaviour has changed due to VAR, then there is a problem. The referee is deferring to VAR even though they believe something to be a foul, card, etc. and VAR must agree with the official unless there is a clear error. The cycle becomes reinforcing and can result in decisions that are incorrect not being overturned.
Former Spurs player Jamie O’Hara said yesterday (on Marcus Rashford’s tackle) ““The game is gone. VAR is ruining football.” The day before, when asked about the performance of the VAR in the Tottenham versus Chelsea game he replied: “It wasn’t the worst; it got most things right”. The statement makes sense and is truly extraordinary, nonetheless. “Most”. Referees always got “most” things right.