VAR, and why I am Dreading its Arrival in Scotland

VAR, also known as Video Assistant Referee, is defined as, “a system whereby officials view video footage of important incidents during a game in order to advise the referee and correct any mistakes.”. The idea is perfect and seems like the natural progression for football. Sports such as Rugby and Tennis have introduced their own video officials in recent years, with the technology being implemented in a way that benefits the sport, and enhances the experience for all involved. These advances have been embraced and made a pretty seamless transition.

So, you would imagine this is also the case with football? Unfortunately, VAR has had a much more controversial impact, with plenty of pushback. This has mainly been due to its implementation. Sure, football fans have always been notoriously resistant to change, with FIFA law changes such as the ‘Back-pass’ causing plenty of upheaval when first brought in but now being part of the footballing furniture, but VAR has experienced more than just a few teething problems. You begin to wonder why this has been the case because VAR convinced a large portion of football fans that it was the right road to go down all the way back at the 2018 World Cup.

In the 2018 World Cup, VAR was brilliant. It was quick, efficient and importantly accurate. Without VAR 95% of refereeing decisions were correct, however, with VAR that was boosted up to 99.3%. Almost flawless. With referees going over to the monitors to quickly have a second look, big screens around the stadium communicating what was happening to fans, and most importantly only the big decisions being reviewed. This made for the perfect supplement to standard officiating - it did not take over the game entirely, rather supporting the referee and improving the game. This was enough to convince many people, myself included, that VAR is what football needs.

[VAR is used in the 2018 World Cup final - image: Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto]

Since then, however, my view on VAR has drastically changed.

Well, my view on VAR remains the same - if used correctly, like it was at the European Championships, then it is absolutely the next step for football. Unfortunately, this has largely not been the case at club level. VAR has been gradually introduced all over the world, from more well-known examples such as the English Premier League to the Kosovan top flight, with varying degrees of success.

The Premier League will likely be the most well-documented case of VAR’s complications and controversy, with the system dominating the news almost every week since its introduction in 2019. Unlike the world cup in 2018, VAR was slow, confusing, inconsistent and on occasion - inaccurate, with some changes being made in an attempt to fix it in the years following, but the issue still remains. If you asked any English football fans, “has VAR improved the football experience in England?”, you would find that a majority of people would likely say no.

Issues with technology, communication and understanding have all been fundamental flaws, this is why I do not want VAR in Scotland. Yes, the technology will likely lead to a short increase in the percentage of accurate decision-making in Scottish football, but at what cost?

The first and obvious “cost” to Scottish football clubs would be the obvious financial one. It was supposed originally that Premiership clubs would all have to fork out £60,000 each, a sum which to teams outside of the old firm, Aberdeen, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, is a pretty significant sum - similar to the club's weekly wage bill, and above some annual salaries. This has now been altered, with clubs contributing different sums based on their final league position, with 12th asked to pay 5.63% (thought to be around £65,000-£70,000), whilst the league champions will have to shell out 16.29% (in the region of £200,000). With the cinch Premiership’s prize pool being one of the lowest in Europe’s top 20 leagues, this is a significant amount of money.

VAR is not just expensive, but there are also plenty of doubts regarding whether it will improve the quality of Scottish football. The SFA are planning on using a “slimmed down” version of VAR, in an attempt to avoid the teething problems experienced south of the border, but in reality whilst this may ease the officials in, it does beg the question; what is the point of spending all of this money, for a downgraded product? It does begin to feel a little pointless if you are not going to bother going all the way.

The purpose of VAR is to correct clear and obvious errors. The issue so far, using the top 5 leagues in Europe as a prime example, has been that this has often not been the case. To go back to the Premier League once more, the use of VAR in England has been a shining example of what not to do. Every single goal scored is reviewed and checked for a possible infringement, with countless examples of goals being disallowed because a player’s armpit, toe or knee were slightly offside, inconsistent line drawing, dodgy penalties being given, and soft fouls in the build-up. These are not clear and obvious refereeing mistakes, but instead minor and often debatable infringements that are a part of football. These are not clear or obvious errors.

[VAR monitors in the Premier League - Image: Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto]

Goals which are clearly offside, penalties awarded where a player sneakily deceived the ref, and bad tackles which were missed by the onfield official in the build-up are absolutely reasons for a goal to be chalked off, however, these have been few and far between - causing the very controversy that they were attempting to eliminate to dominate the headlines, and putting even more pressure on officials.

In England, at almost if not all Premier League grounds, there are big screens around the stadium to inform the fans what is going on, whether that is a notice of a VAR check, what the check is for, and if the decision has been made. This eliminates some (but not all) of the confusion for match-going fans. In Scotland, however, very few stadiums in the entire country even possess these screens, sure at Ibrox and Celtic Park there are screens around the ground, but that luxury is not extended to stadiums such as McDiarmid Park, or Rugby Park. This has led to a concern that fans inside the stadium will be left scratching their heads, unsure of what is going on and anxiously waiting for VAR to make the final call.

This leads onto my ultimate and biggest worry - VAR will tarnish the experience of Scottish football for those who matter most; the fans.

As I have previously discussed here on Total Scottish Football, the fans are one of Scottish football’s biggest assets. With VAR, as has been noted in other European countries, fans are now hesitant to celebrate. Once the goal goes in no longer can you celebrate freely, but my worry is that the initial euphoria will be muted, there will be apprehension and people will hold back, until VAR gives everything the okay. From watching games involving VAR, I have felt that the second the ball hits the back of the net all eyes fall upon the referee. This removes the raw passion and emotion that Scottish football thrives upon.

VAR, however, is not all doom and gloom. As previously mentioned, it should improve the level of accuracy in decision-making by match officials, which should improve the quality of football, in theory, it should take some focus away from referees and as it is the future of modern football, it will help us progress with the times and that will only benefit us, theoretically, in the long-term, and in Europe.

I have never said that VAR cannot work, in an ideal world it certainly can, but to do so everything needs to be perfect, including the officials, the technology, the rules and everything else. Will this be the case? I am not yet convinced. I do not believe that VAR will not eliminate controversy, and it may only improve decision-making by anything from 3-5%. This 3-5% comes at a price, financially and in the case of enjoyment.

My question is, is it worth confusing fans and players alike? Is it worth the risk of taking away the euphoria of scoring a goal? Is it worth the money?

Is VAR worth any of it?