Yesterday did not go well in my sporting world as first the Arsenal football team and then the Ireland hockey team were denied by officials in a booth watching a video rather than on the field watching the play directly. This was more frustrating because the whole point of video reviews is to get more things right – but in this case, even objectively, it caused two things to go wrong. It is worth emphasising, however, that this was in my view because of human error in the use of the video review (and the broader over-reliance on it), rather than the basic notion of video review itself.
Before we get to directly to the cases involved, it is worth noting the standard caveat. Football and hockey matches are not decided by one decision, but by thousands – by officials, but also (in fact mainly) by players and coaches. Was Arsenal’s team selection really optimal? Did Ireland not waste its own video reviews? Were there not countless chances spurned by all teams involved throughout their respective games? Of course there were. So it worth emphasising that officials bear the brunt of our ire, particularly for decisions late in the game, because they are an easy target. It is much easier, especially in the immediate aftermath, to plead not guilty on behalf of our own team and heap blame onto officials than to assess our own performance in detail.
That notwithstanding, all did not go well for the video officials yesterday. Firstly, at the Emirates, Arsenal thought they had nicked a later winner having thrown away a two-goal lead at home to Crystal Palace. No one on the field thought there was anything remotely wrong when Sokratis fired home a likely winner, which was then reported on all relevant channels as having made the score 3-2. A minute or so later, the decision was mysteriously overturned. The game finished 2-2.
A few hours later on the other side of the world, Ireland held a 6-5 aggregate lead over Canada in an Olympic qualifying playoff as, literally in the last second of the game, Canada attacked on the left hand of the circle. An attacker ended up on the floor, the final whistle went, and Ireland had qualified. However, Canada had nothing to lose in using its final referral (in hockey, a little like tennis, teams may refer big decisions to the video umpire for as long as they don’t get one wrong), and out of seemingly nowhere a penalty stroke was awarded. This was converted, and the playoff then went to a shootout which Canada won in sudden death. Ireland certainly felt like it.
It is just about possible that Arsenal’s Calum Chambers did clip a Crystal Palace defender in the lead-up to the disallowed goal (although having seen it several times, it is frankly more possible that a Palace defender clipped him). It is just about possible that the Canadian attacker was indeed felled by an Irish nudge or trip in the final second (although at least from the angle we saw it is equally possible the trip was in fact caused by his own stick as he sped forward in desperation). In both cases the on-field decision was no foul, and in neither case was that decision anything like a “clear and obvious error”.
In football’s case, the situation is made more bizarre by the revelation that the decision to penalise Chambers and disallow the goal was made in a booth by someone not qualified to referee Premier League matches. At least in hockey’s case, it’s a fully qualified top level official in the booth (although, astonishingly, in this case they gave the official a playoff as his second ever and first international game).
Ultimately this was always the risk with video review. The video official almost feels obliged to see something to justify their presence. But this is absolutely not the point of video review.
Video review is meant merely to be an extra aid to the on-field official. Video officials are not there actually to officiate the game. Hence the requirement, stated specifically and overtly in football, for VAR to correct only “clear and obvious” errors. The aim is to deliver less controversy, not more!
It can be done right. Crystal Palace was awarded a penalty and Canada a penalty corner both resulting in a goal by video review correctly applied (whatever former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg likes to claim) to overturn a clear and obvious error earlier in their respective clashes. However, to take the final decision away from the on-field official is not the point and needs to be stopped swiftly.
In the case of football, an obvious issue is that the Premier League, unlike the World Cup or the Bundesliga, does not use pitch-side monitors for the referee to make the final decision. Even in hockey, it is peculiar that the video official not only states a yes/no answer in response to the on-field official’s question about happened, but also the details of anything that happened around it and specifically what the penalty should be. In each case, the final actual decision should be left with the on-field official – otherwise we are close to the point where in fact the better qualified official will need to be the one in the booth!
Fundamentally, the lesson here is that video reviews have their place, but they are now interfering far too often. Consultation with the video is fine, but it is time to restore the final decision-making to the on-field officials.