Bad calls are constantly an issue in sports. When emotions run high, officials aren’t in the right place, and constant cheers or boos from the crowd sway their decisions, it’s safe to say that not all calls made in sports are fair ones. And sometimes, the calls are a matter of life and death to teams; the difference between a goal or a shot, a win or a loss, an advancement or a knockout. In a game like soccer, where goals are so scarce that every one counts, these calls are a large part of the game. That’s why VAR was introduced.
VAR, or video assistant referee, introduces an opportunity for game officials to review plays through a video screen, giving them a second look at what would otherwise just be a decision made by eye. With this advancement comes a plethora of benefits; it makes the game fairer, automatically dismiss accusations of bias, and, when players know their moves are being documented this way, it influences them to play cleaner. For example, in the 2018 World Cup, VAR was used for the first time, and likely because of it, it broke the record for the most goals scored from penalty kicks. Because they realize their actions are more likely to directly affect their team, it can be argued that players are therefore more cautious about fouls, making the game cleaner and safer.
However, several implications arise from VAR, causing controversy over this new development. Some say that all the unnecessary pausing and reviewing sacrifices an intrinsic part of the game; waiting to see what a video screen says before celebrating your team’s winning goal understandably takes away the exhilaration of the moment. And bad calls are part of the game, and always have been. Therefore, I think the underlying question we need to address is: Do we want sports to advance with our ever-advancing world, or do we want them to remain timeless?
My opinion? Personally, I think VAR is a good thing; I want sports to advance with society. Soccer is not the same game the entire ninety minutes it’s played. If you were to compare the first five minutes with the last five minutes, they would look drastically different. Depending on the score, emotions usually run higher towards the end, and everyone knows that high emotions + important decisions = someone being upset, no matter what. I think that using VAR takes the emotion and the heat of the moment out of refereeing decisions and allows the game to continue on with the same state of mind as it does in the first few moments. It provides a sense of consistency in refereeing decisions, which is especially important in such pivotal moments of the match.
Take, for example, the Roma vs. Porto second leg last week, in the Champions League, where VAR was used almost every match. This game was so close and every moment mattered, as the loser would go home and the winner would progress to the quarterfinals of the most esteemed tournament in Europe, if not the world. Roma was leading on aggregate until the last five minutes, when one of their defenders tugged on the shirt of a Porto player, leading to a VAR review and a penalty kick which would ultimately send Porto to the next round. However, the referee did not initially catch the foul, and only checked the VAR once the Porto players protested. Without VAR, the referee would have likely overlooked the play in a moment of such high stakes. But because of this new development in the sport, the penalty was given, a goal was scored, and Porto advanced.
The same mentality also applies to what happened a few minutes later: On the other side of the field, a Roma forward fell the ground with a Porto defender on his heels. Right after such a game-changing decision in favor of one team, it’s understandable that, with a neutral mindset, the referee would be inclined to award the other team a similar favor, especially in such a reactive environment. However, once again, VAR entered the scene, clearing the Porto defender of any suspicion of foul play, showing once again that VAR triumphs over human emotion for the sake of fairness in soccer.
Because of our emotional biases, I find that VAR is a welcome addition to the beautiful game. Sure, soccer may not have that same sort of “timeless feel” to it as it did before, but I think it’s a noble sacrifice to make for the sake of impartiality.
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