When Tech Calls the Biggest Shots, Even in Soccer

Not even something as analogue as soccer–people in shorts running around and kicking an inflated ball into a small area designated by posts–can escape cultural and process shifts from emerging technology. Writer Zac Lee Rigg explores.

By far the most contentious technical issue in global soccer is the use of VAR, or video assistant referees. VAR sounds simple because the idea behind it is straightforward: Instant video replay to quickly and seamlessly adjust soccer referee decisions on the fly. Less straightforward has been the buggy rollout.

“My favorite VAR moment?” Maxi Rodriguez, a soccer consultant and writer asks, before quickly launching into a retelling of the Liga MX playoff game between Leon and Morelia. It’s into the eighth minute of stoppage time (out of an alloted seven). With a goal, Leon would go through. As it is, they will be eliminated.

“Then literally at the moment where you’re like, this is the last play of the game, a hail mary cross—the referee should have called the game—somehow someone gets on the end of the header,” Rodriguez says.

Goal! “Leon are going through to the next round of the playoffs. Fucking stadium is going wild! Fans are going wild! And then for some reason, the referee calls for a VAR review.”

The referee jogs to the edge of the field, flips the cover off a TV screen in what looks like a voting booth, and watches some replays. A couple confusing minutes later, he trots into the field and makes a rectangle with his hands.

You know the motion–at least Will Farrell does:

The goal is disallowed. “The TV broadcasters couldn’t even explain why the goal was called off,” Rodriguez says. Just like that, the game is over. Leon lost, and Morelia advanced.

A brief, chaotic presence in the world of sports

VAR was first used at the Club World Cup, a short one-off competition, in December 2016. The Italian and German leagues rolled it out in 2017, and most of the other major leagues and tournaments have added it since. The governing body that determines the official laws of the game for global soccer is called the International Football Association Board (IFAB). As recently reported, IFAB plan on giving a “routine update to stakeholders” in 2020 on how “simple” VAR usage is supposed to be.

As with any technology rolled out with broad implications, VAR is the latest example of what goes wrong when the tech doesn’t match the end goal.

Here’s how it works. VAR has purview over four areas: goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards, and mistaken identity. A team of three people wearing full referee outfits gather in what looks like a surveillance room to review any plays. At the most recent men’s World Cup, VAR had access to all of the same cameras used for broadcast, plus two dedicated offside cameras.

There’s the video assistant referee (a qualified referee), an assistant (to watch live action while the other guy is looking at replays), and a replay operator. The replay operator gets to wear civilian clothes sometimes, as you can see in this video of the VAR team in Greece getting a food delivery mid-game.

The video assistant referee will talk directly into the referee’s earpiece to either confirm that it was the correct decision (at which point, nothing happens, and life just keeps on unfolding) or that it wasn’t. If that’s the case, the referee has a few options. They can reverse their decision. They can stick with the original call. Some leagues, like Mexico, can allow the referee view a sideline television to double check the play (England, the world’s most popular league, doesn’t.)

Soccer is still decades behind other sports to officially sanction instant video replay. The NFL first experimented with it in 1978 (and incorporated it by the mid-’80s). The NHL (1991) and NBA (2001-02) have followed since.

Offside by an armpit, offside by a toe

In one of the best examples of VAR-bungling, a game in the African Champions League had to be replayed when one team walked off in protest of VAR malfunctioning. But the main gripe fans have is how long reviews take.

“Soccer is this pretty seamless game that takes place over 90 to 98 minutes in a day,” Rodriguez says. “And then you add this weird process that is not seamless in any way, takes like 5 to 10 minutes, doesn’t involve the players, the players are just sitting on the field for 10 minutes. It’s such an antithesis of what soccer has typically been.”

For a sport without ad breaks to wait several minutes before learning if you can celebrate a goal or not is jarring. Before the Premier League in England implemented VAR, it did a live trial in 68 games. It claimed that incidents took an average review time of 29 seconds, and that 95 percent were done before play restarted in the game.

Tell that to David McGoldrick. His first goal for Sheffield United was ruled out after three minutes and 47 seconds of deliberation because of an offside toe.

In the first 10 games of the most recent Copa America, play was stopped for a total of 33 minutes. The longest pause was four minutes. Apparently, the average time for a VAR check is 33 seconds. (An average overturned decision takes 75 seconds.)

Referees point out that decisions are more reliable now; in England they estimate that they’re at 91 percent accuracy, up from 82 percent pre-VAR. But a fan is only going to remember the four minutes of sitting on her couch, confused about if her team is winning or not.

“Those mistakes stick out far more often than proper implementation,” Rodriguez says.

Take the David McGoldrick’s disallowed goal. The offside rule was created to prevent cherry picking—basically so you couldn’t just leave a forward near the goal and boot it up to her. Now we’re to the point where half a centimeter of toe can make a goal illegitimate. The same weekend, Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino was offside by an armpit.

Every weekend since in the Premier League has come with obligatory VAR controversy to dominate the coverage. Even if Firmino and McGoldrick are fully versed on the rules and aware of their surroundings, how are they supposed to account for those margins?

Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Europe’s soccer governing body, recently said they’re looking into adjusting the rules to make VAR “clearer, faster, less invasive.” He pointed out that players with long noses have a disadvantage currently, and floated the idea of a 10-20 centimeter buffer in the offside rule.

All that VAR has done, Rory Smith summarizes, is highlight the limits of the law. The laws of the game are going to have to evolve quickly to take the existence of VAR into account. Instead, VAR has became its own entity. It’s a character. It’s a verb: VARed. It’s a pundit polemic. It’s a meme. It’s a K-Pop dance move.

For better or worse, it’s VAR.

Original illustration by Aaron Fernandez