Is VAR a step too far?

Does technology deserve the red card?

By Robert Rigby

The start of a new Premier League football season is a time when football fans dare to dream. Will it be a good or even a great season for their beloved club?

An elite few have a realistic chance of the title, while others have the possibility of a lucrative cup run leading all the way to Wembley or a place in a European competition. And even for the also-rans there are targets, with avoiding relegation considered a major achievement. But for all the excitement, anticipation and expectation, there is an issue that will once again spark heated controversy and debate – VAR.

Football’s world governing body, FIFA, has declared VAR, or the Video Assistant Referee, ‘a universal success,’ but on far too many occasions during the last Premier League season, VAR quite simply got it completely wrong.

The most significant and obvious change has been that of barring fans from attending live sporting events

On one memorable Thursday evening soon after the disrupted season resumed, the Premier League admitted that in each of the three matches played, a crucial VAR decision was wrong. Tottenham were denied a penalty, which could have given them a win, Manchester United were given a penalty, which led to a win, and Southampton were awarded a penalty, which thankfully for opponents, Everton, they missed.

VAR was meant to put an end to all this, but as is demonstrably clear, a fourth official watching a replay can still make the wrong call, and often does.

Some will argue that these things have a habit of evening themselves out over the season, but tell that to the clubs battling relegation. And why is it that the top clubs most frequently seem to get the benefit of the favourable decisions?

Club coffers, players’ careers and the mental wellbeing of fans hinge on these vital moments, in which case the question must be asked – should VAR be given the boot?

Live sport in the Covid-19 era

Every sector, industry and company has been impacted by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. However, while this is undoubtedly the case, there are some areas that have had the spotlight thrust upon them, with the effects of the pandemic more prominent largely due to either cultural or societal importance. And, in this regard, it’s difficult to argue against competitive sport being hit the hardest.

2020 is very likely to be remembered as a turning point in how sports are viewed, and how people interact with their favourite teams

The Olympics were postponed, seasons were halted, amateur teams disbanded, and there was endless speculation about how – or even if – things could be restarted.

In recent weeks we have seen the resumption of professional football, golf, cricket, Formula 1 and snooker, but there are obvious changes; there are enforced water breaks, competitors are required to commit to routine Coronavirus testing, and backroom staff can be seen prowling the sidelines with masks covering their noses and mouths.

However, the most significant and obvious change has been that of barring fans from attending live sporting events. While the reasoning is sound, and although the majority of people agree with the rule’s implementation, there is no denying that it has changed how sports are viewed. Nowhere is this truer – or more visible – than in the case of top-tier professional football.

The 12th man

The 12th man Supporters are routinely regarded as a football team’s ‘12th man’; they are capable of giving the players on the pitch an additional boost via their voracious appetite for victory, yelling and cajoling strikers to push on and take risks that they perhaps otherwise would have avoided.

When the Premier League restarted following its 100-day suspension, much was made of the fact that fans would not be able to enter stadia, with commentators divided on the issue of whether it would make matches a less appealing spectacle.

Of course, there is no uniform opinion here – some people seem to prefer the tactical purity that is offered without the distraction of rowdy voices – but the general consensus is that football is by no means as attractive to the home viewer as it once was.

In fact, research has found that 75 percent of those that watched live football following the break chose to do so with accompanying canned fan noise, preferring to avoid the live stadium option that would have allowed players and managers to be heard issuing instructions and bellowing at teammates.

Fans will likely not be allowed to enter stadiums in the numbers that they were able to this time last year until a vaccine is found, and that makes sense in every regard; however, whether supporters will retain interest in their teams if they are unable to get up close and personal for an extended period of time, is still well and truly up for debate.

Given the massive unemployment problems facing the country, and given that this pandemic has made a lot of people sit up and put their life’s priorities into perspective, could football slip down many fans’ agendas?

A year to remember

Long after a vaccine is found and life has returned more or less to a state of normality, 2020 is very likely to be remembered as a turning point in how sports are viewed, and how people interact with their favourite teams.

An old adage states that necessity is the mother of invention, and we are certainly seeing that at the moment; TV companies, pubs and sports teams are being forced to alter their approach and adopt innovative ideas to not only keep fans engaged, but to continue bringing in revenues during a financially turbulent time.

If such changes are found to be effective, then it would make sense that they continue to be used even once Covid-19 is nothing but a distant memory.

From a personal perspective – and this is no more than my own speculation – we would anticipate that hand sanitiser stations and table ordering at pubs and restaurants will remain, and will very quickly become the norm. Whether there will be any other long-term – and arguably more dramatic – changes is up for debate.

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