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Liverpool vs VAR: From Distant Origins to Unsettled Future

What's Next for the Video Assistant Referee?

In 1891, after two controversial incidents in England versus Ireland matches, the FA instructed that nets were to be attached to all goals, to make it as certain as possible whether a team had scored or not. However, as successful as they proved to be, they weren’t a flawless design; referees and linesmen were still required to notice bounce-outs and close saves.

The 21st century version of that innovation, it could be argued, is the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). Arriving on the scene to great fanfare in 2019, many hoped it could bring an end to inconsistent on-field decisions between games, and achieve the stability that other systems — such as Hawk-Eye in cricket — had.

So how is it that, nearly four years down the line, the conversation over VAR’s effectiveness still rages as fiercely as day one?

The conversation has been recently ignited by a Premier League game between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. “Significant human error” was blamed for an onside Liverpool goal being disallowed in the first half. Tottenham went on to score a late injury-time winner, compounding Liverpool’s misery.

The club responded vehemently, stating the need for “escalation and resolution” and their intention to “explore the range of options”. At time of writing, with the audio of the incident having been released, an irate Jurgen Klopp declared that a replay of the game “is the right thing to do”, yet it is unclear whether Liverpool have made a formal request to the Premier League or whether such action would even be considered.

The decisions of referees should be one of the few things fans can trust about a football game, and VAR was intended to help with that. But, given that VAR only makes the news when things go wrong rather than right, is it being set up to fail?

The audio recordings of the match officials do clearly convey — in the number of expletives — that this was a significant error made at lightning-fast speed, and that the VAR referee and fourth official quickly realised the gravity of their mistake. But the system is intended to be a referee support, rather than an overriding authority passing judgement from above, and there must surely be a way to remove any smoke and mirrors of decision-making.

In the early days of VAR, criticism was levelled about the time it took for a decision to be reviewed. While that process has significantly sped up, accuracy has now been sacrificed for it, as it appears the error was made in attempting to resolve it as quickly as possible. A likely outcome of this incident will be a return to the days of much slower VAR reviews.

However, the consequences of the subsequent debate for the official refereeing body PGMOL, and the sport, aren’t inconsequential in the long term. The PGMOL cannot hope this discourse will simply fade away as a lack of definitive resolution may lead fans to continue to debate the score lines of any games in which VAR intervened. This could in turn call into question even table standings, prize money, European championship places… the list goes on. Reform of procedure — from including the on-field official in more decision-making processes to broadcasting the audio live on air as in cricket — has to take place to restore trust, and reduce margin for error.

The man who profited from the early football nets was a Liverpudlian by the name of John Brodie, whose company supplied the very first prototypes trialled in Nottingham. Perhaps it’s ironic that VAR’s most recent victim is his city’s club. Who knows — perhaps their determination to push this issue will create a resolution as transformative as John Brodie’s was over a century ago. The sport certainly needs it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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