GUEST: Are refereeing decisions and VAR making football fans fall out of love with the sport?

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By Zubin Daver (@zubinofficial)

The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author – linked above – and is not necessarily representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…

It’s a Monday morning after a derby game. One set of fans is whistling and mocking their bitter rivals. An evenly contested match would have ensured there were no death stares flying across the room. However, it ended up being marred by a refereeing decision. The most common things fans say after a dodgy decision is, ‘your manager has his hands down the pants of the FA. Referees never give decisions our way. You’ve paid the refs.’ 

If football games are won fair and square like the 5-0 drubbing Manchester United received at the hands of Liverpool, then there aren’t many concerns fans could share. However, if that game ended 1-0 or 1-1 due to a shoddy refereeing decision, supporters will remember for aeons – just ask some Chelsea fans! 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned of late, it’s that life has become more challenging than ever before. The pandemic, travel bans, work from home, reduced socialising, and empty stadiums have all changed life as we know it. However, there are a few things that we many look forward to, one being the chance to pour out a cold beer and switch on the sports channel to watch your favourite football team in action. 

A football game has a lot riding on it. In those 90 minutes, fans can forget about all their problems whilst glued to proceedings on the pitch just like someone caught in an endless gaze into the eyes of their loved ones. After all, bragging rights are on the line. 

Bragging rights and flailing tempers bring me to the topic of discussion; the many contentious refereeing decisions which tilt and change games as quickly as Mo Salah drops his shoulder and beats defenders. 

When a game of football is marred by contentious decisions, it affects millions. Little did I know that football has the power to ruin my mood, haha! Jokes aside, in the recent past, refereeing decisions have affected far too many football games. 

There are very few things that bring rival football fans together. Wrong refereeing decisions are one of them. Wrong decisions affecting games that lead to incorrect results are a demoralising factor for all fans. All we ask for is fair and consistent refereeing decisions. 

VAR was brought into the picture to help reduce the errors. I am not saying it has not done its job, however, I do believe that the way it’s been used in the Premier League is erroneous. 

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The funny thing about VAR officials is that there are just four instances in which they are required; Goal/no goal, penalty or no penalty, direct red card (not second yellow card/caution) and, lastly, a case of mistaken identity (when the referee cautions or sends off the wrong player of the offending team). In spite of that, it has ended up altering the outcome of numerous games and either making or breaking a fan’s evening. 

This dynamic VAR table on ESPN is being constantly updated by Dale Johnson, and the picture it paints is a far from pretty one. 

One of the most shocking things that we’ve noticed is that VAR decisions rarely go against the decision taken by the on-field referee. Something similar to ‘Umpires Call’ in cricket. However, something that does not go down well with fans. They want to see consistency, rather than referees sticking to each other and having each others’ backs. 

The idea was to ensure a reduction in on-field refereeing errors. It did so with a lot of resistance, but it was a step in the right direction. However, the ride has not been smooth. Yes, change does have teething problems. However, the problems seem to be biting for much longer than expected.

What is even more shocking is that VAR is being used almost all across the globe. And its implementation is different in different countries and competitions. That poses a question, ‘Why can’t they analyse the league/country in which there are least refereeing errors and use that as a benchmark of using VAR across the planet?’ 

One of the games that come to mind where VAR was horrendous was the meeting between Tottenham and Liverpool. Harry Kane was not shown a red card for a late and clumsy challenge with his studs up where he went sliding in Andy Robertson. That is a prime example of the lack of refereeing consistency in spite of VAR being used. 

This is, however, one of many dreadful decisions that were technically ill-judged by both the on-field official and VAR. 

But let bygones be bygones. There is nothing that we can do to change the past. But what can be done to ensure that things improve? 

Here are a few things that I think can help make referees a little more responsible when it comes to their decision-making. Some of these might not be possible. However, they still present themselves as opportunities to better the officiating in the English Premier League.

  • Referees should be a part of post-match interviews – This is possibly something that will not have a huge difference. Yes, I did believe that it is something that could make the referees a little more accountable. However, when it is up for discussion, it is something that will make referees up to public abuse. After all, we live in an age with zero tolerance and high offence. 
  • Referees should have hooked-on microphones – Having the entire refereeing team hooked up onto microphones so that we can hear their conversations and record them for future use is something that is effective and possible. In the A-League, the referees are connected on microphones where we can listen to conversations between all the referees. In addition to that, they are also recorded. This is a good example of how referees hooked up onto microphones can help justify decisions and also give closure to fans watching from all around the world. This not only makes it clear to fans why decisions were given the way they were but also ensure that there is absolutely no possibility of alleged bias.

  • Change domestic referees to referees from different nationalities – Is it time for us to bring foreign referees into domestic leagues? This is something that can help ensure that the referees that officiate games will not have any sort of domestic background. Please, do not get me wrong; in no way am I trying to insinuate that domestic referees have reduced integrity and honesty. However, it might reduce any sort of bias that angry fans believe existing referees have. Players are already used to playing when they have foreign referees officiating when it comes to continental cups as well as international fixtures. So why not bring that to domestic leagues?
  • Ex-players should become VAR officials – Being a referee is not easy. I agree and so do many fans from all around the world. To be a referee do, you not only need an in-depth knowledge of the sport but also need to be able to understand the game from the perspective of the players. It makes a lot of sense to ensure that VAR duties are given to players that have played a minimum of 150 games at the highest level, both domestic and international. This will ensure that the decisions being made are a little more rounded from a common game sense and with the rules being followed.
  • In the words of Liverpool’s legendary manager, Bill Shankly, “The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they do not know the game.” Circling back to the Kane-Robertson situation, it was said that the decision of not sending Kane off for his challenge was because Robertson had lifted his standing leg out of the way. Well, had the VAR official been an ex-player, he would have possibly had another point of view.
  • On-field and VAR officials should be one team for the entire season – VAR officials should be part of the on-field refereeing team. Collectively they will get better, their communication improves, and the way they see incidents in unison will help reduce errors. 

Even the most fanatic of fans knew that VAR would need time to settle. Change needs time. Change needs acceptance. It’s quite clear we are far away from VAR being used optimally. Fans, players, managers and possibly all stakeholders of the sport we love have mentioned that they love VAR but have problems with the way it is being used.

At Euro 2020, the VAR team was significantly larger than those being used in the Premier League. That unsurprisingly helped speed up the decision-making process. However, the FA does not have plans to ramp up the size of their VAR teams.

One of the highlights of VAR in the season so far was the handball decision given against Everton when Manchester City midfielder Rodri more than clearly handled the ball in his own box in the dying embers of the game.  

There is no football fan or pundit, except Paul Tierney and Chris Kavanagh, who thought that was not a handball. Anyone else defending that decision is doing so just because they could. 

In addition to that, here are a few reactions on Twitter in the past few months when it comes to errors made by referees in the English Premier League.

Something needs to change before fans start falling out of love with the sport because of such dismal officiating. The solution to these problems already exist. All the FA and the Premier League needs to do is adopt the solutions. 

This needs to happen as fans are running out of time and patience. 

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