With LaLiga in chaos, it's 'clear and obvious' VAR is broken



With LaLiga in chaos, it's 'clear and obvious' VAR is broken

espn generic mBy Dale Johnson, General Editor, ESPN FC

This is the first is a series of articles that will examine the many issues facing VAR around the world. Why does a video review system cause so many issues in soccer, and can it be fixed?

If you'd been told that the Football Association had gone to the police to report the leaking of the VAR audio from a controversial match, you might think we're talking about the Premier League. But this is Spain, with its Football Federation reacting to Real Madrid's highly controversial 3-2 win at home to Almería on Sunday.

VAR's problems aren't isolated to one league, as the relationship between VAR and the game is broken all over the globe. Fans don't trust referees, while coaches and players don't understand why decisions have been made. It fuels debate between games, too: if there's one thing the media loves, it's a VAR controversy.

Few would argue that football is in a better place now than it was pre-VAR. Is all the pain worth the small gains? Probably not, but VAR isn't going anywhere. From the start of next season, VAR will be added to Ligue 2 in France, leaving the English Championship as the only second-tier division from the top five leagues without a video review system.

For all its high-profile errors, it's seen by most who matter as a net positive.

One of the major issues across the leagues is about when the VAR gets involved. For some it's too much, for others not enough -- or just in the wrong places. When is something really a "clear and obvious" mistake?




What's so controversial about the Real Madrid game?

Almería, bottom of the LaLiga table without a win all season, were 2-0 up at the Bernabeu on 53 minutes. Then came the first of three VAR interventions that would play a massive part in Real Madrid turning the game on its head, with the winner coming in stoppage time.

Los Blancos were handed a route into the game when Kaiky knocked the ball behind for a corner, as the VAR told the referee he should go to the monitor to award a penalty for handball. While there might not be much doubt about the handball, Almería believe two of their players were fouled -- including Kaiky. Jude Bellingham scored to make it 1-2.

Eight minutes later, Almería thought they had a third goal through Sergio Arribas. Yet the celebrations were cut short when the VAR sent the referee to check out a foul in the buildup by Dion Lopy on Bellingham. While Lopy's arm did brush the face of Bellingham, the referee had a perfect view and had allowed play to continue.

"The feeling is we've been robbed, that's clear. The penalty, the handball, which is an interpretation and can be given but can never be a VAR decision. Today has surpassed all limits. Spanish football is light years from the Premier League in this."Almería's Gonzalo Melero

Real Madrid had the ball in the back of the net themselves in the 67th minute, but the referee ruled it out for handball. However, the VAR told the referee that the ball had hit Vinícius Júnior on the shoulder, and after another trip to the monitor the goal was allowed to make it 2-2.

Almería midfielder Gonzalo Melero led the complaints. "The feeling is we've been robbed today, that's clear," he said. "The penalty, the handball, which is an interpretation and can be given but can never be a VAR decision. Today has surpassed all limits. Spanish football is light years from the Premier League in this."

A report by El Larguero, quoted by Diario AS, said that the Technical Committee of Referees admitted that the penalty should not have been awarded due to the fouls, and the VAR shouldn't have intervened on the Vinícius handball.

LaLiga publishes the audio of VAR decisions an hour after full-time, yet the tape of the whole match was leaked to a journalist in the days following the game, which led to the police being called in.

The game came just nine days after the head of Spain's refereeing body said "no team in the world" puts pressure on referees like Real Madrid, criticising the club's television channel for broadcasting videos highlighting controversial decisions ahead of each match. The clips had regularly featured referee Hernandez Hernandez, who was on VAR for the Almería fixture.

Yet on the decisions on Sunday, it all comes back to "clear and obvious," and a VAR judging when is the right time to get involved.


Real Madrid players protest against Vinícius Júnior's disallowed goal. Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images
Real Madrid players protest against Vinícius Júnior's disallowed goal. Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images


'Clear and obvious' can't be defined, it's just another opinion

"Clear and obvious" is supposed to ensure the match referee has control, that their call creates the barometer for the VAR. Seven years on, can anyone truly say what it means?

Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the League Managers Association in England, told the Daily Mail in November: "The managers are calling for a review [and simplification] of the interpretation of the term 'clear and obvious' in VAR decision-making, as this is a cause of much confusion at present."

David Elleray, the technical director of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) -- who make the laws and came up with the protocol, has said that "clear and obvious" refers to a situation when "almost everyone [players, coaches, supporters, etc] would agree [the decision] was obviously wrong [with little discussion]."

And herein lies the problem. "Clear and obvious" is supposed to indicate serious errors, the certain mistakes. Yet coaches, players and fans expect much more. They want the VAR to get involved whenever things go against them.

And for that reason "clear and obvious" can never be what everyone wants it to be, it's impossible. Whether you support Almería, Real Madrid, Barcelona your view on the VAR interventions will differ considerably. For all teams, it will mean something different depending on the situation, club bias and even how you think the game should be played. Some supporters will argue a decision against their team even in the face of the most damning evidence; anything can be controversial.

It's just a second opinion of another referee, layered on top of the laws. Or even a third: it's also a subjective judgement on when to intervene, let alone the incident itself. Add in that the referee's decision carries the weight, and two near identical incidents can produce opposite outcomes depending upon the on-field decision.

Fans want consistency, yet "clear and obvious" achieves the opposite by adding more perceived inconsistencies.

A Manchester City fan makes their feelings clear on VAR. Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images
A Manchester City fan makes their feelings clear on VAR. Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images


So, just get rid of 'clear and obvious'?

"The problem is very clear, it's the 'clear and obvious' phrase," Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has said. "We need to get rid of that because it's a hiding corner. That's why we have so many problems ... because the 'clear and obvious' phrase hinders [the VAR] and holds him back."

Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Gary O'Neil, on the receiving end of poor VAR decisions at key times this season, said: "The 'clear and obvious' requirement makes it harder for the people operating VAR. It shouldn't need to be clear and obvious."

And do what? Just "get the right decision"? One problem: in most cases there is no right decision.

"I think that people are under the misconception that VAR is going to be errorless," Tottenham boss Ange Postecoglou said in October. "I don't think there's any technology that can do that because so much of our game isn't factual. It's down to interpretation, and they're still human beings."

People compare VAR to its equivalent in cricket or tennis, yet they are sports where video review relies almost exclusively on a computer-simulated outcome.

But football is subjective, and only a handful of situations will ever be at either end of the subjective scale -- the true howlers as described by Elleray. The vast majority sit in the middle ground, marginal calls where fans of both clubs can have a valid opinion that a decision is right or wrong. They are split 70/30, 60/40 or even 50/50, and they cause frenzied debate. They aren't "clear and obvious" so won't be changed by the VAR -- yet the aggrieved club is likely to shout loudest.

For instance, Manchester United were annoyed they were not given a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month, yet if the VAR had stepped in to award it then Spurs would have been angered. VAR, and thus the game, cannot win.


"The technology in its current form is not suitable to our game. When you put such a high bar on something, it invariably is going to fail."Tottenham Hotspur boss Ange Postecoglou


Lower the threshold and that would result in far more pitchside reviews, and you might get more of the kind of errors seen in Real Madrid vs. Almería.

Hand total control over to the VAR? That creates a two-tier system of refereeing which has been tried and failed first in Germany and later in England. Oh, and you might get more of the kind of errors seen in Real Madrid vs. Almería.

Whatever system you use there's still that wide corridor of subjectivity where there can be no agreement. To then end, how can "clear and obvious" ever be compatible with football?

"The technology in its current form is not suitable to our game," Postecoglou added. "But I know I'll be in the minority with that.

"When you put such a high bar on something, it invariably is going to fail, so if people are thinking that VAR is going to be something that at some point that is perfect, that's never going to happen."


How is the Premier League doing?

The Premier League's Independent Key Match Incidents Panel convenes every week. It has five members -- three former players and/or coaches, plus one representative each for the Premier League and PGMOL, the referees body. There's a majority vote on each incident to say if the referee and the VAR have got it right.

Clubs usually think they are correct, likewise referees, so the Premier League created the panel to take away that bias and give an arm's length view of contentious incidents.

The stats for this season suggest the VAR isn't getting involved enough, which says they are in fact missing the "clear and obvious."

There have been 17 missed interventions in the first 20 rounds, the times when the VAR should have told the referee there's been a mistake. Yet on only two occasions has the VAR wrongly sent the referee to the monitor to change his decision: for Burnley's disallowed "winner" against Nottingham Forest for handball by Sander Berge, and Arsenal's cancelled penalty against Manchester United when the VAR felt Aaron Wan-Bissaka hadn't fouled Kai Havertz.

There have been as many wrong interventions in the Premier League all season as there was in Real Madrid vs Almería. But all told, Premier League referees are still averaging one VAR error every week.

The panel is still just a subjective assessment, albeit of a collective rather than an individual. Many would disagree with its judgement that the referee and VAR were correct to allow Anthony Gordon's winning goal for Newcastle United against Arsenal on Nov. 4 -- a decision which after the match Gunners boss Mikel Arteta called an "absolute disgrace" and "embarrassing."

Managers, of course, won't agree that all interventions have been correct -- especially Everton boss Sean Dyche who reckons the VAR has been re-refereeing his team's games.

"My question is where is the line between trusting the on-field decision and the referee's instinct in what they're doing," Dyche said after Dominic Calvert-Lewin's goal was ruled out in his side's defeat at Tottenham last month. "It was the perfect moment for them to be allowed to referee the game. VAR cannot be refereeing every moment. The game has got to be really careful, and I've said it for years."

Howard Webb, who has been in his role as chief refereeing officer in the Premier League for just over a year, has come under pressure, not helped by the disastrous error for Luis Díaz's wrongly disallowed goal for Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur on Sept. 30. The Diaz mistake arguably created a snowball effect, with the level of criticism game increasing among fans and in the media; VAR's reputation has never been lower.


Wolves fans protested against VAR last month after a series of decisions went against them. Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images
Wolves fans protested against VAR last month after a series of decisions went against them. Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images


Is the rest of Europe having problems too?

Don't be fooled into thinking there's a utopia in the top leagues where "clear and obvious" works, VAR is successful and referees work without controversy. A short trip around the top divisions tells us a clear story, with clubs angered by a lack of consistency and confusion over when the VAR gets involved, added to by endless discussion about officials.

Spanish football has been beset by problems all season, leading to a summit between the referees and coaches during the November international break. As he was leaving the meeting, Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti simply said to the press "they don't understand."

Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas threw the pitchside monitor to the ground after a late penalty was overturned, while manager Rafael Benitez complained "this is football, we're not talking about pingpong" after a goal was disallowed in another game.

Real Betis midfielder Isco said "there's too much talk about referees, we all complain a lot." Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez in December said "it's essential for the wellbeing of Spanish football that things like the quality of refereeing and the use of VAR are dealt with."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta told Mundo Deportivo this week: "I believe that the VAR, which is an instrument that comes to help referees, is becoming, due to misuse, a problem."

Luis Medina Cantalejo, Spain's referees' chief, said last month: "VAR is what it is, it is not the ultimate remedy. We already said it in the first year, the second year and now after seven years. And this will continue. If anyone has the secret or magic solution to help us improve the situation, we will listen."


"If VAR wants to have a future, we need to get it under control. Football thrives on emotions. We have to take it seriously when people say 'this is no longer football.' We have to change something."Hans-Joachim Watzke, DFL

It's the same in Italy. Earlier this month, head of referees Gianluca Rocchi admitted the VAR had failed to disallow Internazionale's late winner against Hellas Verona. He also said Sassuolo had a goal incorrectly ruled out for a subjective VAR offside against Fiorentina the same day.

A few days later, Rafael Leão took to social media to complain about a penalty AC Milan had conceded against Atalanta, converted to send them out of the Coppa Italia.

After a VAR-affected defeat to Milan, Empoli coach Aurelio Andreazzoli said: "It's rubbish. Every evening we only talk about VAR, instead of talking about the game, I repeat it's rubbish. It's not the referees' fault, they are involved in this situation. There are a thousand interpretations, nothing is understood anymore, with the same situation being managed differently. The future of this sport is at stake."

Andreazzoli's comments are strikingly similar to those of Borussia Dortmund coach Edin Terzic after a 1-1 draw with Bayer Leverkusen last month, when his team were denied a penalty. "We discuss the VAR every week," Terzic said. "We discuss wrong decisions, about handball, foul play, and so on. The clear line is missing about what is a penalty and what is not."


Union Berlin fans display a banner which reads 'Abolish video evidence! Let the emotions run free!' Andreas Gora/picture alliance via Getty Images
Union Berlin fans display a banner which reads 'Abolish video evidence! Let the emotions run free!' Andreas Gora/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund's CEO and chairman of the supervisory board of the German Football League (DFL) shares the concerns in the Bundesliga: "If VAR wants to have a future, we need to get it under control. Football thrives on emotions. We have to take it seriously when people say 'this is no longer football.' We have to change something."

And in France, L'Equipe confirmed that Brest president Denis Le Saint sent a letter to the governing bodies demanding that VAR be scrapped. Brest coach Eric Roy said after a loss to AS Monaco: "The overriding emotions are frustration, incomprehension, anger. We don't know why VAR is called upon when the initial decision is in favour and not when it's the other way around. In French football, we decide a lot of close matches, not necessarily with refereeing decisions, but VAR decisions. Maybe it's incompetence, I don't know."

A few weeks ago, Montpellier coach Michel der Zakarian said: "The guys on VAR, it's a scandal. They need to stop."


How have we got into this mess?

There's a valid discussion to be had over refereeing standards, yet officials haven't been helped by the IFAB, where the complex rewriting of key areas of the Laws of the Game has been a huge contributing factor. For instance, the handball law was amended four years in a row, and offside has been made more complicated. Fans and players have struggled to keep up, and referees have to take far more into account whether they are on the field or in the VAR hub.

The IFAB, and FIFA, steadfastly believe this "clear and obvious" system is the right fit for football, where every possible infringement is analysed. The VAR makes a decision and then sends the referee to a TV screen to (almost always) approve an outcome that's predetermined.

Any meaningful change or attempt to try something different has been rejected by the IFAB and FIFA. For instance, Serie A petitioned to trial a challenge system on several occasions, the first as long ago as 2020, but it was refused each time. Ligue 1 wanted to mic up the referee three years ago, and it was refused then and each year afterwards.

In November, Lukas Brud, the secretary and chief executive of IFAB, rejected the idea of live broadcast of VAR audio, calling it "a chaotic situation" which "would be counterproductive."

Referees, no matter what league they're in, can only work with what they're given by the IFAB and FIFA. The VAR Handbook, the instruction manual which referees have to follow, has barely changed since it was finalised six years ago. Fancy reading it? It's never been made available outside refereeing circles. The IFAB and FIFA are under no obligation to do so, but it might help understand VAR a little better

The game has attempted to progress VAR but has found itself in a straitjacket. That failure to trial those changes or adapt had added to the frustration, increasing the pressure on referees, and leading to even more scrutiny.

This year, referees in all leagues will be able to announce their decision to the stadium ... and that's what the IFAB and FIFA call progress. It's taken us nearly seven years just to get this far.


Keywords: Fifa

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