VAR is far from perfect, but extended trials in Italy, Germany are going well
Video Assistant Referees (VAR) are here. It isn't wishful thinking. It isn't pie-in-the-sky. It's real -- if you're in the Bundesliga, Major League Soccer, Serie A, Australia's A-League or the Portuguese Primeira Liga. We saw it at the Confederations Cup last summer and it will be available for use when England and Germany meet in a friendly at Wembley later this week.
It's worth remembering that this is a trial, one that is being conducted in real time with real, competitive matches. It isn't going to be perfect; the whole process is there to iron out the kinks. When it's over, it will be evaluated before a decision is made as to whether it's worth continuing. Remember when FIFA introduced "sudden-death" extra-time? (Except to make it less scary they called it "Golden Goal.") That lasted a decade, and then we decided we didn't like it. It had no discernible effect, so it was scrapped.
It likely won't take that long to give VAR a thumbs-up or down. It has been used in some 500 games. By the end of the European season, we'll have a sample of close to 1,500. That should help other leagues determine whether it's worth adopting.
Whether it was going to achieve its aim -- cutting down on errors by referees and assistants -- was never really going to be in question. After all, replays might not catch everything or even most things, but they will inevitably correct some decisions. The issue is whether that time and expense are worth it.
Thus far, on "objective" decisions -- offsides, whether a foul occurred inside or outside the box -- it has been pretty open and shut. Verdicts are delivered relatively quickly, and yes, they do make a difference. But "subjective" decisions -- fouls and the like -- were always going to be more problematic, and there has been some level of confusion.
Fans, players and coaches wonder why certain decisions get reviewed and others don't. In fact, every decision gets reviewed; the VAR (who, lest we forget, is a referee) only intervenes when he disagrees with the call on the pitch and believes a "clear error" has been made. That's when he asks the referee to review it.
A recent demonstration on Italian TV brought the process to life. Referee Daniele Doveri awarded Juventus a penalty when Fiorentina's Milan Badelj brought down Blaise Matuidi at the edge of the box. The audio was replayed: You could hear the guys in the VAR booth discussing it among themselves and then saying "Danny, you really should take a look at this ... We think it's outside." He did, and the penalty call was reversed.
Had it been less obvious or more difficult to judge, VAR might not have intervened. Equally -- and this is important -- had Doveri disagreed with the VAR's interpretation after seeing the replays, he could have stuck to his decision. Decisions remain the responsibility of the official on the pitch, and that's critical.
Are there kinks to iron out? Absolutely. The most obvious one concerns when a player is incorrectly flagged offside. Play stops, and because time travel has yet to be invented, there is no way you can go back and let it continue. It happened this season to Torino, and it cost them a victory because the wrong offside call led a late winner against Bologna to be overturned.
Harsh? Yes. But it's worth noting that without VAR, there would still have been an incorrect offside call and a disallowed goal. Match officials are human, and they make mistakes, which is why one of the side effects of VAR has been for assistants to flag only when they're 1,000 percent certain, especially when it could lead to a goal-scoring opportunity.
Sometimes, it looks a little silly, but on the flip side, the technology takes into account the parallax effect and player locations with a precision beyond the reach of the human eye. This has meant that VAR's offside calls are as close to perfect as can be.
We've also seen less dissent -- nobody is going to argue with video -- and referees say they feel more confident too, as well as appreciating the fact that they have less dissent to deal with.
Who objects to the system? They seem to fall into three categories.
Some are folks who are simply philosophically opposed to VAR. You'll have no more luck convincing them to embrace it than you will getting a guy who hates broccoli to eat it by reciting its health benefits.
Some are individuals who don't quite understand how it works. They'll rage at VAR when something doesn't get overturned or when the referee won't even look at it. They'll wonder how you judge when "Attacking Phase Possession" actually begins and why. As officials become more accustomed to it, so will they: That's why these trials are important. They educate fans, and in time, as referees improve in using it, fans will realize it isn't some arbitrary black box voodoo but is actually based on a system.
Some are people, who see its benefits but can't deal with the changes it brings to the game. They don't like the interruptions and how long they take. (Albert Einstein was right, by the way: Time really is relative. Waiting for a VAR decision feels like an eternity, no matter how many seconds or minutes actually elapse). They don't like the fact that, sometimes, you lose the spontaneity of celebration after a goal is scored. Those are valid points. Games have been getting longer because of VAR, if only by a minute or so in most instances. And, yes, it's a real buzzkill when you leap out of your seat and do a little jig only for the VAR to disallow you team's goal.
But that's the price you pay and the question is whether it's worth it. Justice comes at a price, and that's what we ought to keep our eye on as these trials continue. Are the benefits of VAR (i.e. does it make enough of a difference) worth it in light of the inconvenience?
Thus far, many seem to be leaning toward a "yes," but it's early days yet. FIFA expect to make a decision in 2018, possibly 2019. We have more than 1,000, possibly 2,000, games to go. So let's wait and see. For now, though, the consensus appears to be "so far, so good."
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.