“We’re only pointing fingers at technology, but it’s not fool proof and so are humans” said former Indian cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, on the format of the Decision Review System or DRS, which has been used in mainstream cricket globally for around a decade and a half now. His comments here were regarding the conclusiveness the system provides using Hawkeye technology, developed by Paul Hawkins. Here, six cameras from various angles are positioned around the stadium to track and predict the movement and trajectory of the ball as accurately as possible.
By 2009, ICC (International Cricket Conference) saw the potential in this technology to be implemented in the DRS system, where players and teams were given power to refer against the umpire’s decisions, particularly regarding dismissals. Fourteen years later, the world can unanimously agree that this system and technology is not a hundred percent conclusive. This has still led to the figures behind this system continuing to work on sharpening the accuracy of their technology, knowing there is always going to be room for some error, both for the technology and the individuals operating them.
At the start of the month, the football world experienced one of its most controversial moments in its most recent history with its own technological system – the Virtual Assistant Referee or VAR. VAR is a fairly new system in the mainstream footballing landscape.
Its aim was to provide on-field referees an additional aid in making tight decisions regarding fouls and offsides through capturing and recording incidents through the various cameras on the pitch. In this way, they would have the opportunity to carefully analyse, assess, and even discuss those recordings with the other on-field referees as well as the VAR staff via headset to come to a conclusive decision.
The recent controversy regarding VAR, took place in an English Premier League game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. Liverpool’s Luis Diaz broke through the Spurs defence through a counterattack in the 34th minute to score for the Reds. However, the assistant referee on the pitch signalled the flag for offside, disallowing the goal, which prompted the decision to go to VAR for a review. This is where things went awry as VAR Darren England, assumed the on-field decision was onside and his review was to see if Diaz was offside, which through the technology one could see was not the case. Thus, he informed the on-field referees to stay with their decision. By the time he noticed his error mere seconds later, it was too late, and the game resumed as normal. The audio conversation between the referees and the VAR was later released, which showed the sheer panic and distress in England’s voice after he made the error and his plea to the on-field referees to stop and revert the decision. However, they could not just simply stop the game like that and had to stay with that decision. This ended up costing Liverpool the game 2-1, and when the entire details of the debacle were released publicly, there was huge outcry staged by the footballing public as a whole.
Why there is mistrust of VAR? Why does the general public think such a technological marvel is causing more problems when it should be resolving them? The reason, perhaps, is the way VAR is implemented in football. Due to the fast-moving nature of football, proper usage of a system like VAR, which requires careful and patient analysing for its best outcome, never even had a fair chance to succeed due to the incessant need to keep football as a ‘fast flowing game’.
According to Lukas Brud, Secretary of the International Football Association or IFAB, during initial trials of VAR, it was used at an average of less than ninety seconds per game, insisting that there was a need to keep the decision-making fast so that it does not ruin the momentum of the game. The public should understand that such crucial decision that could define the fate of the fixture, if not the season, cannot always be made properly in such a time-sensitive situation.
This was the main reason for error in the Spurs-Liverpool fixture.
Whilst I agree that a major error was made by the VAR team, I do not think that they deserve to be dragged through the coals due to the ‘unwritten rule’ of not ruining the momentum of the game. The process of VAR needs to be severely restructured as well, which means decisions should not be made on a casual consulting manner between the referee and the VAR. This manner of approach may also be a factor of the miscommunication, as the VAR team saw how the attack played out and just assumed it was a routine check when consulted by the referee.
Teams should be given the power to refer against a decision made by the referee and then VAR should be consulted, similar to how it is done in many other global sports. Here, teams will be given a fixed number of referrals each, which they may use to appeal against any decision that has not gone in their favour throughout the game, which if they win, they may retain, and if it’s unfavourable they lose it. This allows the VAR team to be much more vigilant, as they will only be consulted a limited few times in the game and will have to treat each review with the utmost importance.
Yes, it is prudent to understand that this can slow down the game, but crucial decisions do require some amount of time and patience to come to an accurate conclusion. There are many other unimportant factors that already slow down or spoil the momentum in a football match, and this sometimes can also be deliberate tactical decisions from the teams involved in the game. So, when there is a technological resource to make an accurate decision to influence the result of a game, it needs to be given that space to grow. Instead of directly critiquing its system, we need to understand the errors and work towards improving it further, so such errors are minimised as time goes on.