In this article, “football” means soccer and “hockey” means field hockey. (As they rank first and third globally in terms both of sports participated in and sports attended, this is as it should be…!)
In the recent Champions’ League fixture in Gelsenkirchen between Schalke and Manchester City, six minutes were taken up by the referee trying to establish if a handball incident should result in a penalty, in part because it turned out the in-stadium video replay was not working so he had to go “blind”, taking the word of the video replay assistant team. A similar rigmarole (albeit with the system working) took place even in the World Cup Final. While “VAR” has generally been applauded for making decisions more accurate, it has been challenged by those who feel it takes too long (or does not account sufficiently for the speed at which the game is played particularly with reference to handball decisions – a clear example occurred last night, when Napoli was awarded a ludicrous penalty via VAR more or less for kicking the ball at the arm from close range in a Serie A game against Juventus).
It does seem to be an unwieldy system. Not only can it take a considerable length of time for a decision to be reached, but typically five video assistant referees are involved. That is a lot of effort, combined with significant opportunities for things to go wrong (the assistants are often located remotely, sometimes several hundred miles from the stadium).
In parts of the world where rugby is known, some have suggested a “TMO” system would work better, but I have argued before here that it too takes too long and, particularly, that it has led to on-field referees becoming over-reliant on the technology. Even the award of clear scores can be delayed, at the expense of time and indeed the base emotion which is the very reason many of us attend and enjoy sport.
Hockey’s system is not absolutely perfect either, but seems to offer a happy medium. In that case, a “video referral” is made to a single video umpire in a booth after an on-field decision has already been made, and the video umpire may be asked only very specific questions (“I am looking for a foot in the circle”; “I need to check if it hit an attacker’s stick”; or similar). The video umpire then responds essentially affirmatively, negatively, or with the line “I can see no clear reason to change your decision”.
The key difference is that, although hockey umpires may themselves make a referral (particularly in the case of goal versus no goal), each team also has the right to ask for reviews. In each half, each team may request a referral for major decisions as many times as it likes until it is wrong (in which case it loses the right for the rest of the half). Therefore, umpires are less inclined to make their own referrals but can quite openly ask teams appealing for or against a major decision “Do you want to refer it?”
The other difference versus football is that the on-field umpire is bound by the video umpire’s decision if one is clearly given either way (which is effectively what had to happen at Schalke when the video system at the side of the field was not working). Football has long had the culture of the referee’s decision is final, so “VAR” has been constructed to enable that. How important is that, really?
Clearly, there are differences. Football has offside to consider; hockey has two types of major decision (penalty stroke and penalty corner) as well as goal or no goal. Match timing is different too (in football time keeps running for reviews and is then added on; in hockey the clock stops). However, would it not be easier if football abandoned all the extra video assistants checking for everything and instead went for team referrals? It’s a question worth considering, anyway!