Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is FIFA's VAR going down the same road as video review in other sports?

Officiating in soccer is notoriously inconsistent, and at times horrendous. As technology has advanced rapidly, the capability now exists for decisions made by officials to not only be scrutinized on TV replays, but also by video assistant referees, or VAR. The system is making its major tournament debut at the Confederations Cup in Russia, and has already caused controversy. Is soccer heading down a path that other sports have trundled down with video review not litigating what it was intended to?

VAR has pluses and minuses, and both have already been seen in the tournament. Pepe scored a goal for Portugal against Mexico that was clearly offside, and VAR correctly overturned the call. Yet, in the following game between Chile and Cameroon, VAR overturned an Eduardo Vargas goal that may have been marginally offside, but nowhere near as egregious as what happened earlier in the day in Kazan. But even when it hasn't overturned calls, the delay to restarting games when referees are looking over plays for whatever reason has also drawn some ire, especially for goals that look to have no controversy about them whatsoever.

Naturally, as with any new system, VAR needs time to be fine-tuned by FIFA and the relevant authorities, but with the mandate to only rectify obvious mistakes, some of these early moments with VAR seem to not be following that mandate. Video review always seems fantastic in principle, but in practice, these moments where decisions split hairs always end up under the microscope more than they probably should, and soccer isn't the first sport where this has become the case.

Each of football, basketball, baseball and hockey all saw these growing pains when introducing instant replay to their sports in order to get calls correct. In hockey's example, coaches challenges were introduced after an egregious missed offside call in a Nashville/Colorado game led to a Predators goal, but now, coaches challenges litigate micrometers that may put a play offside as well as determining whether skates are on the ice or above it. The red flags, so to speak, were supposed to eliminate the egregious miscarriages of justice, but instead began litigating tiny things which can and have changed seasons.

Most everyone acknowledges that the human element of officiating causes referees to miss calls that they should catch, and that instant replay/VAR/coaches challenges do help get calls correct, which is the ultimate goal. But when Pandora's Box was opened, immediate problems became evident. It's happened in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL and in soccer, a sport where even more decisions fall under the referee's jurisdiction, some of the surprises inside Pandora's Box are coming with correcting obvious and blatant mistakes.

Instant replay is necessary in modern sports because of the technology and especially what the fans see at home when they could potentially know more about a play than the referees do. But when there are delays, many of them needless, and when calls that split hairs end up being extensively litigated when they don't need to be, these are the kind of discussions that everyone has to have.

In the end, getting the call right is paramount. In a sport like soccer, "right" is often in a grey area where the lines are blurred, making the lives of the referees on the pitch and in the video booth harder than ever when fortunes can hinge on inches and millimeters.

When a World Cup might be won or lost on a decision like this, VAR could see its ultimate vindication. Or, it could end up being at the center of controversy if a World Cup is won or lost on a controversial call. Such is what happens when Pandora's Box is opened, and FIFA is finding the good and bad in VAR after only using it in four games.

Work needs to be done to make the system better, and only time will tell if VAR becomes the NHL's coaches challenges, or the NFL's much more refined system, or even something in between.

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