The 2019/20 Premier League season will mostly be remembered for Liverpool’s dominance, but not far behind will be the introduction of VAR, which has fans, players, managers and pundits all raging for it either to be disbanded or, at the very least, to be radically reformed. Many have argued that the game’s soul is at stake, with players afraid to celebrate goals, and breaks in play turning the sport into a quasi-American Football hellscape of timeouts, and Jose Mourinho throwing flags at the linesman. No one wants to see it!
The counterargument is that new technology is always viewed with suspicion by those wedded to the idea of tradition going hand-in-hand with a lack of positive change, as has been evidenced in sports and games as wide ranging as cricket to poker. However, since its introduction at the beginning of this Premier League season, there has been pushback against Video Assistant Referees (VAR), but the Premier League suits insist it’s here to stay. So, what can be done to make it better? These other sports may just point the way.
Hawkeye was greeted with perhaps as much, if not more, derision than VAR when it was first unveiled back in 2006, with big names such as Roger Federer and Michael Stich going as far as to say it’s bad for the game. However, fast-forward a few years and the technology is universally viewed as a welcome addition to tennis, as fans worried about not seeing the likes of John McEnroe scream, “it was on the line!” saw players finding new ways to show their frustration and attitude. So, what did the ATP and WTA Tours get right? Firstly, it takes very little time to review a line call, with a player being given just a few seconds to decide if he or she wishes to challenge. Each player also only receives two challenges per set. However, the main benefit for tennis fans is that the technology is only used for one purpose: line calls, eliminating the need for lengthy subjective decisions such as handball in football. Perhaps football needs to do as tennis has done and rein back the use of technology to places where it can only make decisions swiftly and correctly, such as goal line technology and offsides, rather than also trying to deal with penalty decisions, handballs and red card incidents.
Unlike tennis, technology in cricket has rendered umpires virtually redundant, with almost all major decisions being double-checked by multiple technologies, including heat detection, sound detection, ultra-slow-motion replays and Hawkeye. Few would argue that the technology has virtually eliminated incorrect decisions, although it has had a profound effect on the game and how it’s played, with LBW (leg before wicket) decisions being appealed for more vociferously and captains having to think carefully about whether to use one of their precious reviews. Of course, by its very nature cricket is a slower game, punctuated by pauses, allowing for such decisions to be made, a luxury football doesn’t have. However, what football can learn from cricket is that one technology doesn’t fit all scenarios, and that often, to get the correct decision, other avenues must be explored.
Rugby was ahead of the curve when it came to adopting technology, with TMO (Television Match Official) getting its first run-out in 2001, allowing referees on the field to review whether a try had been scored legitimately, checking for things like offside that are often tricky for referees and linesmen to spot. Fans are now more used to celebrating facing the stadium’s big screen than they are watching the pitch, which although a bit sad doesn’t appear to overly bother the sport’s followers. One interesting technological advance in rugby is the use of body cameras on referees, allowing fans to see how decisions are formulated and how the referee interacts with players. For too long football players have gotten away with abusing referees, allowing the practice to filter down into the junior and grassroots games. Perhaps body cams could be what stamps out such unnecessary abuse. After all, who wouldn’t have wanted to watch Pierluigi Collina’s body cam?