VA-Are you not entertained?

This summer’s European Championship felt like we rescued a successful tournament out of the jaws of defeat. From the pandemic to the pan-continental format, Christian Eriksen’s collapse and the ugly scenes at the final, there was so much going against Euro 2020. Yet one thing which causes so much controversy on a weekly basis in domestic football barely raised an eyebrow at the Euros – VAR.

Yes, there were some controversial moments involving refereeing decisions. Most notably, perhaps, was the furore surrounding a penalty awarded to England in extra time of their semi-final against Denmark. But the video assistant referee (VAR) was unable to conclusively prove there was no touch on Raheem Sterling, indeed seeming to show the English forward felt contact and therefore, while going down easily, could not be judged to have clearly and obviously dived.

On the whole, though, the video assistant referees kept an extremely low profile at the Euros. In fact, the majority of the tournament saw a light touch approach not only to VAR intervention, but to officiating in general. Most games were allowed to flow, with the majority of referees refusing to buy the playacting and gamesmanship that often rears its ugly head at major international tournaments.

The result was a championship which saw lots of free-flowing football and plenty of goals. There were some tight and cagey affairs once we reached the latter stages, which is to be expected. But Euro 2020 set a new record for the average number of goals scored per game, producing the highest total since the introduction of the group stage in 1980. The 51 fixtures produced 142 goals, at an average of 2.8 per game.

As such, the approach to officiating at the Euros has to be praised. There are always going to be controversial moments given the high stakes, but the fact that the official in the middle or the VAR team were the topic of conversation on such few occasions means it has to be judged as a success. Indeed, the officiating has received lots of praise, not least with respect to Anthony Taylor’s handling of the Eriksen situation.

Extra resources were committed to Euro 2020, including the appointment of an in-game VAR official who focused solely on offside calls. That meant there was a VAR, assistant VAR and offside VAR for each fixture. Despite that, offside calls were probably the worst element of the officiating at the Euros.

Television viewers were usually left in the dark on offside calls, with instant replays almost non-existent. Sometimes there would be no image of the call until long after play continued, if at all. Paying supporters inside stadiums could forget about being kept in the loop. This is in part down to UEFA and their technologies and systems, but also the link to and role played by local television directors, and the integration they got with the VAR hub at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

This has also been an issue in UEFA’s flagship club competition, the Champions League, since the introduction of VAR in 2019, and only exacerbated by the pandemic. It needs sorting out though, as the viewing experience can feel a little cloak and dagger at times.

That said, the speed of VAR interventions is improving, helped by the light touch approach. If a call wasn’t clear and obvious at the Euros, the referee’s initial decision was allowed to stand. Leagues like the English Premier League slow down replays to micro-analyse whether the slightest contact has been made, then give the on-field referee a super slow-mo view of an incident to reconsider their decision.

The problem with this is that football isn’t played in slow motion. It’s a fast-paced, contact sport. Yes, we must clamp down on cheats who simulate contact in order to con referees. But there’s a fine line between diving and being put off balance. Sometimes referees just need to be allowed to use their discretion and receive some backing that they’ve not made a howler.

This appeared to be the approach at the Euros, and it worked. Referees can’t get everything right, but neither can video referees. The danger we’ve seen with VAR is that decisions are re-refereed from afar in real time, removing the on-field officials’ feel for the game. And with every decision that’s debated by the VAR, reviewed and referred, the game is slowed down and destroyed as a spectacle.

VAR should be a safety net to guard against major injustices. We went too far the other way, but these Euros seem to have redressed the balance. We’re in the midst of a process, and we must learn from the mistakes we’ve made. VAR is constantly evolving and it’s going to take time to hone the system and protocols to something that’s more universally accepted.

The Premier League, for example, has listened to players, fans and pundits alike and will use thicker lines to judge offside calls from next season. It could learn from the Euros and deploy a specialist VAR official to be all over any potential offsides in the build-up to goals and penalties. This would reduce the time it takes for decisions to be made.

During the group stage of Euro 2020, VAR interventions took an average of around 100 seconds, the lowest of any UEFA competition. That figure took some 30 seconds off the time it took for interventions in last season’s Europa League, for example.

The light touch approach is also shown by the fact there were only 98 cards in the group stage, compared to 129 at Euro 2016. Despite having VAR this summer, the time the ball was in play rose by more than two minutes from the showpiece five years ago.

In total, VAR overturned 18 calls at Euro 2020. Of those, eight were decisions reversed by the on-field referee using the monitor at the side of the pitch. Some 276 incidents were checked in all, which means only 6.5% were overturned.

And that’s how it should be. The goal for VAR is for the technology to be helpful, rather than taking centre stage. Another aid for officials to use. The technology itself is good, the issue is with the humans using it. As we continue to evolve and adapt, we can only hope we learn from our experiences to improve the entire process.

Five changes for the future

Sort out offsides

Fans at home and in stadiums are consistently left scratching their heads when it comes to offside calls. It should be easy to sort this out and provide instant replays along with stills of the dreaded lines as soon as they’ve been drawn. However, given fans are often reluctant to celebrate in case a goal’s chalked off and the issues surrounding tight offsides, perhaps we could get rid of offsides completely from VAR.

Time is of the essence

The speed with which decisions are made is improving, but it could still be much better. If one or two quick replays aren’t enough to make a call, just stick with the referee’s on-field decision. A time limit on VAR reviews could be introduced to help with this.

Let us listen in

There’s a degree of mistrust in referees due to the lack of communication and insight, amplified by not being able to hear conversations between video and on-field referees. Obviously we need to be careful with this to protect officials where necessary, but other sports have managed to do so, and football should too.

Keep fans in the loop

Supporters inside stadiums often have no clue what’s happening on the VAR front. Not every stadium has big screens capable of showing replays, but this could be an option for the future. If not, playing the audio conversation inside the stadium would help.

Introduce challenges

In other sports such as tennis, cricket and American football, players, captains and coaches are given a limited number of challenges per game. This could potentially be an interesting addition to football, as long as it’s done in the right way, with one or two challenges per game retained or lost depending on their success.

This article was from a past issue of Soccer 360 magazine. Click here to subscribe to future issues.

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