On​ the baseball fields of America in the first half of the 20th century Bill Klem was the law. As an umpire between 1905 and 1941 he worked eighteen World Series. His nickname was the Old Arbitrator, and the decisions he made were absolute. He is said to have been the first umpire to communicate to the crowd in the stands as well as the players on the field. He didn’t just announce his decisions; he used his arms to signal them. ‘That guy in a 25-cent bleacher seat is as much entitled to know a call as the guy in the boxes,’ he said. ‘He can see my arm signal even if he can’t hear my voice.’ Once, when a player asked whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, he replied: ‘It ain’t nothing until I call it.’ On another occasion, he was shown a photograph that proved he had mistakenly called a player out. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said to the press, ‘he was out because I said he was out.’

Klem died in 1951. Four years later, George Retzlaff, a producer on the TV show Hockey Night in Canada, used a kinescope to produce the first replay of a goal, but the video took some time to edit so was only ready to be shown later in the match. It was another eight years before Tony Verna, director of sports broadcasting at CBS, perfected a process that enabled him to replay touchdowns in American football matches just seconds after they’d happened. Using a VR-1000 videotape deck weighing half a tonne, situated in a large truck outside the stadium, Verna would rewind the tape then run it back into the live feed. On 7 December 1963, during a match between the US army and navy, he used it on live television for the first time. Lindsey Nelson, the CBS commentator, was briefed to remind fans: ‘This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!’ Two weeks earlier, a similar process had been used to replay footage of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald just nine minutes after the event. But Verna had improved the technique; using audio tones as cues, he was able to produce a replay almost instantaneously. American football, in which key incidents often happen away from the main action, suddenly became more accessible. And refereeing mistakes were much easier to spot. By 1985, the LA Times was able to declare in an editorial that it was ‘possible for millions of people to consider an umpire’s calls again and again and from many different angles … possible to catch a glimpse at least of what appears to be an Independent Truth’.

In the 2010s, as part of a project called Refereeing 2.0, the Royal Dutch Football Association introduced the video assistant referee – a new official who, using video replays, can advise the on-pitch referee to change his original decision or consult a pitch-side monitor and view the footage for himself. The abbreviation for ‘video assistant referee’ is now used for the system as a whole: VAR. The technology had been available for decades, but Sepp Blatter, then the president of Fifa, football’s world governing body, was an ardent technophobe, and rejected proposals for its roll-out. During the period of his presidency, between 1998 and 2015, the TV money distributed between clubs in the top leagues rose exponentially; mistakes might affect the outcome of a club’s season, so were becoming more and more costly. VAR seemed like a cure withheld.

After a decision went against his team in a Champions League fixture, the Juventus president, Andrea Agnelli, called for the implementation of VAR ‘as soon as possible’, accusing the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) of ‘scientifically’ damaging Italian clubs. Gianni Infantino, who replaced Blatter in 2016 in the wake of a corruption scandal, approved the decision of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to endorse the use of VAR in all its club competitions. It was announced with great fanfare that it would be in place before the World Cup in 2018, and at first it really did seem to work – the tournament was one of the most exciting in years.

VAR is used slightly differently from country to country, but all roughly follow the blueprint laid out by IFAB. It can intervene in decisions that involve the awarding of a goal or a penalty, the issuing of a straight red card, or a case of mistaken identity. The IFAB guidelines state that VAR ‘may assist the referee only in the event of a “clear and obvious error” or “serious missed incident”’ and that it must not be seen to ‘re-referee’ the game. The on-pitch referee is still the law: the video assistant referee can’t make a decision, only confirm it or recommend that it be changed. The principle is ‘minimum interference, maximum benefit’.

The interference has not been minimal. The English Premier League introduced VAR for the 2019-20 season. According to a YouGov poll from 2020, just 4 per cent of fans thought it had worked ‘very well’. Gary O’Neil, the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, said recently that VAR was having an outsized impact on the ‘livelihoods and reputations’ of everyone involved in football. Fans have organised protests outside stadiums around the world. The chant ‘Fuck VAR’ is ubiquitous. In Brazil, the director of Corinthians, at a game away to Gremio, tried to storm the VAR room to confront the referee after a red card decision went against his team. But all the room contained was equipment; the video assistant referee and his team were thousands of miles away in Rio. The physical remove of the VAR officials from the game only makes it more suspicious: Stockley Park, where the English VAR headquarters are located, is presented by commentators as if it were a mythical centre of misinformation. In fact, it’s a dreary business estate just outside Slough.

Despite the mistakes, VAR works. A 2020 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences showed that overall decision accuracy improved with the use of VAR from an already high 92.1 per cent to 98.3 per cent. So what’s all the fuss about? Part of the problem is that although the right decisions are being reached more often, it doesn’t feel like they are. Because it’s easier than ever to check the accuracy of a call, mistakes are more obvious and more egregious. The old defences (‘The ref was unsighted’; ‘It all happened so quickly’) no longer hold up, and the new excuses (‘It looks worse in slow motion’; ‘They’re looking at the wrong camera angle’) sound foolish. Some critics don’t like the effect VAR has on the aesthetics of the game. In a sport that prides itself on continuous action, the time it takes for a referee to study a replay is a painful sacrifice. Fans also complain that they can no longer celebrate goals properly, since they might be ruled out minutes later. What’s more, instant replays aren’t shown to fans in the stadium as they are to TV viewers, for fear of inciting crowd reaction. Bill Klem would be horrified. The fans in the stands know less – and pay a lot more – than they did in the 1940s.

VAR is often talked about as though it were a novel technology, rather than an additional referee, or referees, in a room full of computers. Another study, from 2021, found that a ‘low-quality’ referee in charge of a VAR system was worse than no VAR at all. In England, Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) trains and provides referees for all levels of professional football. There have always been accusations of incompetence and bias against PGMOL, but now there are demands that VAR be removed from its remit, or that decisions such as offsides be fully automated. It’s not clear that referees themselves even wanted VAR, but if one of its intended consequences was to make their lives easier, it hasn’t worked. Klem once complained that he had developed a skin condition from the stress of umpiring baseball games: ‘Fans think these verbal and physical public humiliations go in one ear and out the other. Well, they don’t. They go in one ear and go straight to the nervous system, eating away co-ordination, self-confidence and self-respect.’ Today’s referees have their decisions replayed and dissected long after the game has finished.

Other sports seem to be faring better. Rugby’s TMO (Television Match Official) is the gold standard of digital officiating. It’s quick, decisions are nearly always correct and the referees wear microphones to speak directly to fans in the stadium and at home, so that the reasons behind each decision are clear. In a recent interview with the BBC, Wayne Barnes, a former rugby referee, suggested that football is in an ‘evolutionary period’. But rugby’s evolutionary period took place twenty years ago (TMO was introduced in 2001), and without the scrutiny of vast audiences, multiple camera angles and social media. In the context of today’s multi-billion-pound football industry, PGMOL is beginning to resemble a bumbling PR firm, issuing apology after apology to affected clubs. VAR is now even the star of its own TV show, Match Officials Mic’d Up, presented by Howard Webb of PGMOL and the footballer Michael Owen, in which they explain – and explain away – VAR mistakes.

On occasion, PGMOL has tried to assuage fans’ anger over particular VAR decisions by releasing an audio recording of the conversation between the referee on the pitch and the VAR officials. During a game against Tottenham early this season, Liverpool’s Luis Díaz scored a goal which was called offside by Simon Hooper, the referee on the pitch. Darren England, the video assistant referee, saw that Díaz was in fact onside but, thinking that Hooper had allowed the goal, confirmed the decision. The upshot was that a fair goal had been disallowed. After an outcry, the conversation in the VAR room was released. Some fans were expecting a complex technical discussion, with reference to gradients and camera angles and the IFAB rules and regulations handbook. In fact it was more like listening to several non-pilots trying to land a plane:

Replay Operator: Wait, wait, wait, wait. The on-field decision was offside …
assistant VAR: That’s wrong, that, Daz …
VAR: Oh, fuck …
Replay operator: Stop the game …
var: Can’t do anything, can’t do anything … Fuck.

The most vicious mockery was reserved for the on-pitch referee, Simon Hooper, after he congratulated the VAR team. ‘Well done boys, good process’ is now a catchphrase for the whole English VAR disaster.

In his BBC interview, Barnes said that while it took some time, rugby referees and fans got to grips with digital officiating, and that football would too. It will take time, he said, for football to decide what counts as a ‘clear and obvious’ mistake. But fans are getting impatient. For several months in 2019, debates about what constituted a handball infraction became an argument about the definition of an armpit. If the ball hits an arm, it’s a handball. But is an armpit an arm? Where does the armpit end and the arm begin? In the end, IFAB intervened with a new definition: ‘The upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit.’ Well done boys, good process.

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Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

Ben Walker’s reflections on VAR invite the observation that VAR’s problem is not the technology (which we love to doubt), or the people who operate it (whom we love to demonise), but the relationship between VAR and the on-pitch referee it is supposed to be helping (LRB, 22 February). VAR’s original sin is surely its insistence that the referee remains sovereign. As Walker says, IFAB guidelines state that VAR ‘may assist the referee only in the event of a “clear and obvious error” or “serious missed incident”’, and that ‘it must not be seen to “re-referee” the game.’ This polite fiction has generated a number of problems: it has done nothing to relieve the pressure on refs from players, for whom outrage is a professional obligation; it has elongated games while refs consult the pitch-side monitor; and it has disenfranchised the ticket-holders in the stands, who are the last to know what’s going on.

In cricket, the introduction of technology has been far less disruptive despite the sport’s ostensible traditionalism. This is partly because the tech is used to make judgments that are objective (the Snickometer’s oscilloscope shows unambiguously whether or not the ball hit the edge of the bat) rather than subjective (does that physical coming together of two players constitute a penalty?). But it’s also because by incorporating technology into its decision-making, cricket has straightforwardly abandoned the fiction of on-pitch sovereignty. When there is doubt over a decision, the umpire is not invited to the boundary to participate in a twelve-angle tutorial on his putative folly; he is simply told in-ear whether he was right or wrong, and to confirm or change his decision accordingly. IFAB insists that the football ref remains in charge, yet Sky Sports reported in January that of the 55 times referees had been ‘advised’ to overturn their decisions in the Premier League this season, they had done so 54 times. If football plainly acknowledged that the true authority now lies upstairs in the VAR booth, players would have less incentive to get in the ref’s face, away fans at a midweek match would have a slightly better chance of making the last train home, and the crowd would be privy to the judicial process along with the rest of us.

Simon Skinner

Vol. 46 No. 8 · 25 April 2024

Simon Skinner makes the case that reviews of refereeing/umpiring decisions work better in cricket than in football, both because the judgments made in cricket are objective and because cricket has abandoned the fiction of the referee’s infallibility. There are two other significant reasons (Letters, 21 March). First, football is a fast-flowing game in which disruptions to the action are generally short, while cricket is a much slower game of which pauses are an integral part. The referral of an umpire’s decision has its own drama, where the team on the receiving end of the initial verdict has fifteen seconds in which to decide whether to use one of its few appeals, and if it decides to do so there is then the drama of the evidence being presented to everyone in the ground on large video screens.

Second, there are few goals in a football match. A poor or contentious decision is likely to affect the final result. In cricket, even though the removal of a leading batter is a significant event, depending on the format there are twenty or forty wickets potentially to be taken in a match, so a single decision isn’t so emotionally charged.

Stephen Adamson
London SE5

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