By Timothy Belin, Columnist
MOUNT BERRY, Ga.- On Sept. 21, 2019, Tottenham Hotspur fullback Serge Aurier put his team 2-0 up against Leicester City, only for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to overturn the goal because it found his team-mate Heung-Min Son to be 1.6 cm (0.6 inches) offside. A week later, when Tottenham midfielder Tanguy Ndombele scored against Southampton, he and Aurier mocked VAR during their celebrations, telling fans not to celebrate until it approved the goal. While clearly a joke, these actions displayed the growing discontent with VAR’s current use, which stems mostly from its flawed application of the offside rule.
The official VAR protocol from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) states that VAR “may assist the referee only in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error,’” but that rule exempts offsides, which are deemed objective decisions. However, when it takes officials two minutes to reach a verdict, as was the case with Son’s offside, the decision can hardly be deemed straightforward. Additionally, Daily Mail reporters James Sharpe and Adam Shafiq published an article on Aug. 17, in the wake of a similar incident involving Manchester City midfielder Raheem Sterling, to explain how VAR camera frames are too slow to be decisive.
“Imaging software showed Sterling to be 2.4cm offside (just under an inch),” they said. “Sterling was moving at about 14.5mph (23.4kph). Cameras used by VAR run at 50 frames per second. In the 0.02 secs between frames, he would move 13cm. If he was 2.4cm offside at Frame B that means he was 10.6cm onside at Frame A when the ball was about to be played.”
As the second technological innovation in soccer after goal-line technology, people expect VAR to be just as accurate, but that is unrealistic. As this study shows, VAR has a margin of error, and that does not even take into account the speed of defenders running in the opposite direction. Goal-line relies on a chip inside the ball and a precise line it needs to cross, while offside is based on the position of a moving player in relation to other moving players at the exact moment a ball is hit. The claim that VAR can make this process black and white is therefore delusional, and offsides should be treated as subjective incidents.
Some might argue that this issue is not that important, because referees make mistakes too. However, it is easier to accept human error from them than from a machine implemented specifically to correct mistakes, and referee errors rarely change games the way VAR does. Because it is a retroactive action, overturning a goal can have a huge effect on game momentum, as Leicester midfielder James Maddison said when speaking to BT Sport after the Tottenham game in an interview available on their YouTube channel.
“The fans celebrated like it’s a goal we scored,” Maddison said. “And you get that little lift.”
Leicester scored twice to win the game, and Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said, in his post-match press conference uploaded to BeanymanSports on YouTube, that VAR proved decisive.
“This decision to Leicester made that things happen in the last ten minutes of the game,” Pochettino said. “That changes the emotions. For us was massive disappointment. For them was massive belief, for the people, for the fans and to start to keep pushing. And, of course, they find a way to score the goal.”
The decision to overturn a goal is therefore extremely influential, and officials should treat these instances with caution. In any other reviewable situation, the IFAB states that “the original decision given by the referee will not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that the decision was a ‘clear and obvious error,’” and I believe the same thinking should be applied to offsides. If the player is visibly offside without frame-by-frame analysis, then it is a “clear and obvious error,” but if not the referee’s original call should stand. VAR has been mostly beneficial, but understanding its limitations and adapting to them is going to be crucial in keeping it around, as the current aim of perfection is unrealistic and hurts the game. Not only does VAR have a major impact on game momentum, it also does the fans a disservice, as mockingly referenced by Ndombele and Aurier, by preventing them from celebrating a goal as they normally would. If soccer’s governing bodies want to maintain the community’s support for VAR, they then need to adapt its use to incorporate the margin of error.