FIFA is the body that has run world football since 1904 but it does not hold responsibility over the rules of the game. Instead the International Football Association Board (IFAB) retains this honour, and has done so since 1886. FIFA is represented on IFAB and, given the voting arrangements on the Board, any rule changes require FIFA support. Those that follow football closely will recognise that this authority is quite conservative.
The 2017/18 Laws of the Game are very different in this regard as they saw the inclusion of new laws, for the purposes of testing, the most significant being the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). VAR is mentioned twice in this document and it says:
“For a Law to be changed, The IFAB must be convinced that the change will benefit the game. This sometimes means that the proposal will be tested, e.g. the current video assistance for referees (VAR) and 4th substitute in extra time experiments”.
“The IFAB will continue the video assistant referee (VAR) experiment with around 20 competitions, including FIFA, undertaking ‘live’ experiments of the protocols established in 2016”.
I have watched a large number of games where VAR has been used. In my opinion, it has not benefited the game. It’s becoming clear that there are certain instances in football, and indeed sport, where video technology can help and other scenarios where it is no better than the referee. The dividing point comes down to whether a rule or law is objective or subjective.
Objective rules are based on fact. They don’t require opinion, feelings or emotions. Something is or isn't. Subjective rules are open to interpretation and can be influenced by emotion or opinion.
Tennis and rugby are two excellent examples where video technology are used superbly to ensure fairness in the application of the rules of each game. Hawk-Eye has become an exciting element of tennis and is effectively flawless as the rule is objective. Did any part of the ball touch any part of the line? If yes, the ball is in. If no, it is out. We don't read about instances where Hawk-Eye 'may have got it wrong'.
Ireland’s third try against England at Twickenham in the recent Six Nations is another great example. Jacob Stockdale’s solo run had a number of questions posed of it. Did Stockdale knock the ball forward with his hand? Yes, or no? Did the ball cross the end-line before Stockdale put downward pressure on it? Yes, or no? Did Stockdale apply downward pressure on the ball? Yes, or no. These questions don’t require interpretation. They are not open to opinion or judgement calls.
Football has had similar success with goal-line technology. The question is objective. Did all of the ball, cross all of the goal line? This change has been a welcome addition. I bet Frank Lampard wishes it was in place during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I have yet to see this technology fail. I doubt it ever will.
If the VAR experiment is to work like these examples, it needs to be altered. Using VAR to “help” with subjective rules is a recipe for disaster. Everyone views the game differently. A good tackle to one person might be a foul to another. A pull on a jersey, where a player goes down, could be a penalty to one viewer and a dive to another. That is what the referee is there for. If VAR is to be used for these, why the need for the referee?
To use VAR, there must be a 'clear and obvious' need - this seems objective but in reality it is still fuzzy. How do we justify that the foul on player X was clear and obvious but the foul on player Y was not? The controversy is just pushed back a step.
VAR could be used in some circumstances but only where rules are objective. For example, goals where offside may be an issue could offer some hope but the parameters for use need to be made very clear.
At the moment a player is offside if "any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent”.
There are two instances here where VAR could work, for the benefit of the game. Scenario one occurred in the recent Champions League semi-final between Manchester City and Liverpool. Leroy Sane was incorrectly judged to be offside, having put the ball in the net, just before half-time. In this instance, VAR could have confirmed an incorrect decision and awarded the goals. The second scenario is when a goal is scored and awarded, where offside might be an issue. These occurrences are rare but do occur, and in this case, the referee could rule out the goal and award the defending team an indirect free-kick as is the norm with offside decisions. Crucially, in both cases, the game can only restart in one of two ways; a kick-off at the centre circle or an indirect free-kick. At the moment VAR could result in a kick-off, penalty, an indirect-free kick, a thrown-in, a corner, a goal-kick, etc.
A word of caution. The parameters on this would need to made very clear so that everyone is aware how far back in play offside decisions could be viewed. VAR may require a complete overhaul of the Rules of the Game if it is to work like technology in other sports. This begs the questions whether it is worth the cost.
Most recently, German referee Guido Winkmann had to ask players from Mainz and Freiburg to return to the pitch during half time as VAR had awarded a penalty. Anyone that thinks this will “benefit the game” is mistaken.