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How do we move forward with VAR in football?

There has been a lot of discussion around officiating and the use of VAR this week. Normally, there is a controversial decision each week that gets people talking, and in this season in particular, there has been a lot of talk of bad decisions and claims from fans of officials being ‘lazy’ and relying on VAR. Almost every team has had a bad decision that leaps to mind immediately, but now it has reached the point where vital parts of the season are being either allowed or disallowed by VAR decisions rather than on the pitch. How has football got to this point and where does it go from here?

Firstly, Nottingham Forest’s post on Sunday after losing to Everton has divided opinion, with some fans claiming petulance from Forest, while others claim that standing up to bad VAR decisions was the right thing to do. The statement, which has been viewed 44 million times, was posted within minutes of the full-time whistle at Goodison Park on Sunday, with the club claiming the three separate decisions not to award a penalty were “extremely poor.” One of the most staggering parts of the statement was the claim that the VAR “was a Luton fan.” The claim was made in such a way to infer that the VAR, Stuart Atwell, was biased and because Luton were in a relegation fight with both teams, he should not have officiated.

Forest fans are also feeling aggrieved because of the many decisions that have gone against them this season, and this appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The frustration is understandable. Every Premier League team has had a decision against them at some point in the last four years, but to send out such an unprecedented statement is childish and petulant.

Not only the decisions in the Everton and Forest game, but also in the FA Cup semi-final after Coventry City had a winning goal disallowed for offside against Manchester United. It seems that there is a discussion every week about the decisions that are made, and occasionally when there is a decision that generates a lot of discussion, the PGMOL come out with an apology and claim that they will conduct a review and improve in future.

However, if something controversial happens each week, then it’s hardly an improvement. Forest have asked to hear the audio for the three penalty decisions during the Everton game, but they shouldn’t have to ask. Every part of each game is recorded and is also broadcast live to the TV commentators, so why can’t the paying public hear what is being said? Restricting the audio will only fuel the conspiracy theories, rather than shut them down, and releasing the audio makes things much more transparent. If it is currently restricted by the laws of the game, then change it. Don’t use it as a dismissive barrier and frame it as an impossible task just because “it’s the law.” It’s what’s happening in our government at the moment. Laws are being either created or amended because they want to change the country.

Managers and players speak to the media after they have had a difficult game, but referees never come to explain why their decision has been made, because they are protected. Mike Dean has said that if a referee broke protocol, they may not officiate for the rest of the season! Seriously? It doesn’t take much to explain why you made a decision. You’re a referee on a football pitch, not a member of a jury.

Of course, a lot of decisions in football are subjective. Handballs and fouls are often 50/50 but most of the time, it’s left to pundits and fans to make sense of the angles and come to their own conclusion at the absence of referee explanations. Offsides are slightly more black and white, but it still appears to be rather inconsistent. One of the biggest controversies of the season was when Luis Diaz’s goal was ruled out for offside for Liverpool against Tottenham, when the replays showed he was clearly onside. The VAR, Darren England, realised his error immediately but could not stop the game once it restarted because “it’s the law.” Once again, a very dismissive angle that could see them banned for the rest of the season if they broke the protocol. I understand there has to be discipline, but that does seem a little harsh. Again, it’s a football match where the wrong decision was made, it’s not an actual crime. Why does common sense not prevail? Another controversial offside was when Coventry City were denied of one of the greatest comebacks of all time as they lost to Manchester United on penalties in the FA Cup semi-final.

Half a foot was the difference between the tie going to penalties and Victor Torp’s goal being allowed. If you look closely, the lines are drawn over Aaron Wan Bissaka’s foot, which doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, Wan-Bissaka is tracking back while Haji Wright is on his back foot, gaining no advantage whatsoever, which is the entire point of offside. The theory that VAR benefits the top six is just vacuous, but the microscopic detail of the modern game is what ruins it for many.

It depends what people genuinely want with VAR. Do you want it scrapped? If that is the case, decisions will have to be made on-field and if it transpires that it is the wrong one, then that will have to be accepted. Do you want quicker decisions? If so, under pressure, decisions may be skewed and more controversy and conspiracy theories may arise. Do you want accuracy? That is good, but will ruin the flow of the game. There have been VAR decisions this season that have gone on for more than six minutes. Or do you want transparency? In other words, not too bothered about the decision, but I want to hear why and how they came to their decision.

It depends on who you ask, and it is probably a mixture of all of those. One thing is for sure, though. Something has to change. Apologies and promised reviews from the PGMOL mean nothing if it doesn’t appear to improve. Football is a subjective game, so there will always be a window of controversy regardless of what happens. The job of a referee is to control the game, but the constant controversy makes them look like they have no control or competence whatsoever.

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