A view of an Ecuadorian player generated by the computerized VAR system. This play was deemed offsides, leading to a goal being called off.
Every four years, the FIFA World Cup creates the biggest stage in sports, and every time upon that stage there is a call by a referee that causes outrage across the world. Consider the Argentina vs. Mexico game in the 2010 World Cup. Argentina’s infamous goal stands as one of the most extraordinary examples of a blown call by a World Cup referee. The goal scored by Carlos Tevez in the 26th minute was clearly offside as the replay cameras reveal, but neither the line judge nor the head referee spotted the infraction. Years of incidents like this, as well as the uproar that they often engender, have led to FIFA implementing a new system known as VAR or Video Assistant Referee in the past couple World Cups, but these too have become the target of vitriol from fans.
VAR has been around for some time now. Since the 2018 World Cup, the system has allowed on-field referees to call for a review of a play and watch the play on a field-side television operated by two other assistant referees in a nearby film booth. This enables the on-field referee to make a better judgment on a play if they weren’t able to catch the incident in all the chaos of a soccer pitch.
Despite this advantage, VAR has been the subject of some criticism. Fans and players alike have said the technology slows the game down, making soccer more stop-start instead of the fluid and dynamic game that fans are accustomed to. Liverpool midfielder James Milner tweeted in 2020 “It’s ‘clear and obvious’ we need a serious discussion about VAR. Sure I’m not alone in feeling like [I am] falling out of love with the game in its current state.” VAR has been an issue to players for some time, but its reliance on a human referee to make the final decision has kept it within the favor of most players.
However, a new rule has been implemented for this year's World Cup, and this time, fans are even more frustrated with virtual systems. During this World Cup, every shot on goal is reviewed by an automated VAR system that uses artificial intelligence to judge whether or not any offensive player, on ball or off, is offside. Without any explicit on-field referee interaction, a goal can be called back by this automated system.
For example, in the group stage match between Qatar and Ecuador, a goal scored by Ecuador during the fifth minute was called back by VAR. The goal in question was not initially called offside by the line judge or the head referee, but after further review by the automated VAR, it was called offside due to the shin of the attacking player jutting past the front of the defender’s foot. Ecuador would end up winning the game anyhow, but the call brought automated VAR into the spotlight as a system that could potentially disagree with initial referee decisions.
Fan opinions on the new VAR rules have been overwhelmingly negative. Sports writer James Robson wrote in an article that these offside calls are “against the spirit of the game,” and fans tend to agree. In a survey conducted by the Football Supporters Association in England consisting of 33,000 soccer fans, 95 percent of those who were surveyed agreed that VAR “made watching (soccer) less enjoyable.” As for why fans are so incensed at these rules, FSA vice-chair Tom Greatrex has some perspective: “There is a clear feeling among fans that VAR has ruined the spontaneity.” In today’s game of soccer, there is always a chance that the goal will be called back, so teams don’t celebrate quite as hard anymore. There is now a tentative worry about the goal being taken from them, which can leave the fans in the stands underwhelmed when a goal is scored.
Aside from differing opinions between referees and robots, VAR has also brought into question the nature of the offside penalty. The rule as it stands in the officially published FIFA “Laws of the Game” handbook states that, “A player is in an offside position if…any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.” This is the official ruling by FIFA on the matter.
However, is that the way the rule should be written? If all it takes is a toe over the line to be called offsides, how far back must an offensive player play in order to avoid a call? Could this rule lower the offensive intensity that players conduct themselves with because they are constantly aware of this hair-trigger rule ready to call off their plays? The offside rule might be worded in a clear manner, but the goal of the rule has always been to prevent an overpowering advantage for the offense. Is an offensive player truly in an unfairly advantageous position if their knee is barely extended past the foot of their opponent? A referee can make the nuanced judgment that this rule is meant for. A robot can’t.
Even without considering potentially altered game results or rule clarity, VAR simply changes the nature of the sport. As is known by fans and players alike, soccer is like no other sport because of its fluidity. The nature of the game is to be constantly in action, without reprieve. This is what makes soccer what it is. New systems, in the format that they are being implemented in, are slowing the game down. They are slowly removing that element of the game, making it more akin to a game of basketball, where play is usually constant yet frequently stopped for review.
So are all of these virtual systems truly helping the sport of soccer? In some cases they might uphold the rules to a more exact degree, but what about the rapidity of the game? What about the flow that makes soccer what it is? VAR might be a step forward for the game of soccer in certain realms, but how many steps back could it also be taking? There’s a reason that soccer is called the most beautiful game, and one can’t help but wonder if these new rules are making it a little more ugly.