The 2018 FIFA World Cup ushered in a new era of soccer—for refereeing at least.
FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, lauded themselves for their implementation of the latest soccer technology: Video Assistant Referee, or VAR. VAR made its international debut in the Confederations Cup in the summer of 2017, but 2018 was the first year where VAR was used in the World Cup, which occurs every 4 years.
Technological advancements in soccer—like so called “goal-line technology” and the popular use of GPS to track distance covered—have their uses but sometimes also come with a host of potential problems. The problems significantly outweigh the benefits and should be left to other sports where the technology is more practical, such as American football.
At first glance, new technology seems to enhance the experience of soccer. Goal-line technology eliminates debacles that could cost teams an entire match. In 2010, when England and Germany were playing in the Round of 16, the match’s three referees were practically the only people in the stadium who failed to notice that English midfielder Frank Lampard’s shot had made it fully into the net. Rather than counting Lampard’s equalizer as a rightful goal, the referees came to the conclusion that Germany’s goalie, Manuel Neuer, had successfully made the save.
This game not only marked the end of England’s 2010 championship dreams, but also single-handedly persuaded FIFA to re-examine their anti-technology ways. Goal-line technology has a singular purpose: proving whether a soccer ball traveled beyond the goal line or not. However, other innovations are not as clear-cut.
Referees are human and, of course, imperfect, which is why the federation looks to technology to catch what the referees cannot. Inaccurate calls arise as a result and completely change the direction of games; however, technology cannot always be the answer. In cases like the France-Croatia final of the 2018 World Cup, the limits of VAR are abundantly clear.
The first goal of the game came off an accidental header from Croatia striker Mario Mandžukić into his own net, but before the kick came a particularly flagrant referee error. France’s hero, Antoine Griezmann, lost his footing near a Croatian defender and earned his team the free kick despite no foul play. Griezmann’s flop handed France an easy shot at an early lead, but where was VAR?
According to FIFA’s website, referees use VAR in four categories of situations: goals, penalty kicks, direct red cards and confused identity. Under these guidelines, a dive like Griezmann’s, which unfairly awarded France the opportunity to earn the opening goal, would not receive a second look. France took the advantage and ran with it, changing the course of the game.
As for when VAR was actually used in the final, Griezmann once again brought France the advantage after converting a penalty awarded using the technology. A handball from the opposing side’s Ivan Perišić was initially unseen by the referee, who this time listened to the team’s complaints. Croatia, who had already fallen behind once before due to referee error, was further demoralized.
Bad calls tend to cancel each other out, but with VAR, the balance sways. If the referee had not corrected the penalty call after flubbing the one before the first goal, France would have lost its unfair advantage. VAR has good intentions but that does not mean it works.
It would be impossible to predict the exact outcome of the final if VAR could be used more consistently. Croatia dominated possession for most of the game and had many chances, but France’s young team demonstrated stupendous attacking prowess and speed. One thing is for sure, VAR’s implementation—and in the case of the first goal, its lack of implementation—enforced France’s advantage beyond their energy level, morale and confidence.
The France decisions were not the only questionable calls in an international soccer final. In last year’s Confederations Cup, Chile’s Gonzalo Jara committed a foul usually standard for a red card and ejection. Yet the referee made the confounding decision to designate Jara’s elbow to German forward Timo Werner’s face as a less severe yellow card. Germany went on to beat Chile in the Cup regardless, but this game is one of many examples where VAR is not as foolproof as FIFA claims.
Some look to other sports to reinforce their approval of VAR. American football’s version of the technology plays a more concrete role due to the stop-and-start nature of the game. Whereas American football pauses after most plays and features a number of timeouts, soccer’s timer never stops. If a team is lucky, referees will award additional stoppage time at the end of each half.
Since FIFA strictly uses VAR in situations they designate more severe, game-changing call mistakes like Griezmann’s pretend foul go unchecked. And given the nonstop nature of soccer, allowing call challenges like American football seems more unreasonable than VAR itself.
Soccer does not need the interference of VAR, especially without challenges. If players cannot call for a second look, this technology may very well make the playing field more uneven, rather than less. Not to mention, players should not have that power anyway when it would take additional time. Some argue that VAR works well, but their points seem obsolete considering that VAR does not eliminate referee misjudgement. It influences games as promised, but not always for the right reasons.