SEOUL: The English Premier League produced its first serious piece of controversy of the new season on the last day of September. Tottenham Hotspur’s thrilling last-minute win over Liverpool was dramatic but almost forgotten because of what happened earlier in the game with VAR – the Video Assistant Referee – at the centre.
It was goalless in the first half when Luis Diaz put Liverpool ahead but the goal was ruled out as the Colombian was judged to have been offside in the build-up.
As with every goal in the league, it was checked by a number of officials watching on video and, as it quickly became apparent to those watching on television that Diaz was clearly onside, viewers waited for VAR to tell the referee to change his decision and allow the goal to stand. Yet, Spurs quickly took a free kick and the game continued. It signalled the start of a storm.
“SIGNIFICANT HUMAN ERROR”
How the whole thing unfolded seems almost incomprehensible. Darren England, a Premier League referee in charge of VAR for Tottenham-Liverpool, checked the Diaz call. He evaluated that the Liverpool attacker had been onside – but that was not the problem, communication was.
England had mistakenly thought that the original on-field decision had been to award the goal, assuming that he and his team were merely confirming that the goal was good. The referee was told “check complete” and, understandably, believed that this meant the original offside decision was correct.
By the time the VAR team realised that the goal had not been given, the game had restarted and, according to protocol, it was too late to go back. On the audio released (Liverpool had demanded that it be made public), England’s last words were “I can’t do anything. I can’t do anything” before a curse word was bleeped out.
Refereeing body PGMOL apologised to Liverpool and said that the decision had been “a significant human error”.
It has been a significant embarrassment for a league that prides itself on being the best in the world. As well as the criticism, there have been calls for something to be done. Former Manchester City player Micah Richards has said that VAR should be scrapped. Yet even without VAR, the Liverpool goal would not have been given as on-field officials got it wrong.
Richards’ fellow BBC pundit and England international Gary Lineker does not believe VAR is in danger. “The truth is, whatever we think, it’s not going to be scrapped. They’ve invested too much in it. It’s worldwide; they’ve spent fortunes on it and overall you get more correct decisions,” he said.
Transcript of Liverpool VAR audio
VAR: Possible offside, Díaz.
Assistant referee: Coming back for the offside, mate.
VAR: Just checking the offside. Delay, delay. Give the kick point, let’s go. Kick point please?
Replay operator: So, here we are. Just get a tight angle.
VAR: Yeah, give me 2D line ready after this one for frame two after that.
Replay operator: So frame two there?
VAR: That’s fine. Perfect, yeah. 2D line on the left boot.
Replay operator: Let me just switch angles.
VAR: Romero, I think it is?
Replay operator: I think it might be. This angle better? Happy with this angle?
Replay operator: 2D line on the boot?
VAR: 2D line on the boot.
Replay operator: Yeah, OK. So 2D line on the boot.
VAR: And stop. Check complete, check complete. That’s fine, perfect.
Assistant referee 1: Playing.
Referee: Cheers mate.
VAR: Thank you mate.
Referee: Well done boys, good process.
Replay operator: Wait, wait, wait, wait. The on-field decision was offside. Are you happy with this?
Assistant VAR: Yeah.
Replay operator: Are you happy with this?
Assistant VAR: Offside, goal, yeah. That’s wrong that, Daz.
Replay operator: On-field decision was offside. Are you happy with this image? Yeah, it’s onside. The image that we gave them is onside.
Assistant VAR: He’s played him, he’s gone offside.
VAR: Oh *expletive*
Replay operator: Delay, delay. Oli’s (Oli Kohout, VAR hub operations executive at PGMOL) saying to delay, Oli’s saying to delay.
Replay operator: Oli’s calling in to say delay the game. The decision is onside.
VAR: Can’t do anything.
Replay operator: Oli’s saying to delay, Oli’s saying to delay.
Fourth official: Yeah?
Replay operator: Delay the game, to delay the game? Stop the game.
VAR: They’ve restarted the game. Can’t do anything, can’t do anything.
Assistant VAR: Yeah, they’ve restarted. Yeah.
VAR: I can’t do anything. I can’t do anything. *expletive*
PROBLEM OF PERCEPTION
Calls to scrap VAR and return to the old ways should recognise however that there were also huge controversies in the past and it was these that led to technology being used.
After all, it seemed crazy when, in this most popular and richest sport in the world, billions watching on television could see that a mistake had been made as, increasingly, could fans in the stadium. Yet the referee, the one in charge, could not. Help was available.
Yet it is this gap between the perception that technology could end mistakes and the fact that it can never be perfect that lies at the heart of the problem.
“The characterisation of VAR from the get-go has been flawed,” said leading UK pundit Simon Jordan on radio. “Nobody who is sensible thought VAR would get it right 100 per cent of the time. VAR requires people to interact with it.”
Just days before the Liverpool blunder, a signal loss affected a Singapore Cup match.
The disruption to the VAR feed happened during a match between Hougang United and Tanjong Pagar United on Sep 25 in the 84th minute. Tanjong Pagar United eventually won the match 2-1.
Improvements can definitely be made. Jordan is one of those calling for the way the technology is operated to change and for new protocols to be put in place.
“Someone at Stockley Park (VAR’s base of operations) knew that decision was wrong and they didn’t want to break protocol,” he said. A new rule in which play can be stopped, within a short time limit, if it is clear a mistake has been made would have allowed Diaz’s goal to stand.
To reduce the possibility of these kind of mistakes being made in the first place, football could follow the example of other sports when reviewing decisions. When video officials in cricket communicate to the on-field umpires – the audio is broadcast publicly – the correct decision is announced and the umpire is publicly told to either reverse his call or stick with it.
In addition to this, cricket journalist Dean Wilson believes that perceptions have to change too. “Occasionally there are moments that even outfox the TV cameras and can lead to huge debate, but perhaps that is a good thing,” he said in the Daily Mirror. “Sport is a human contest and when there are subjective moments, the acknowledgement that the officials simply do the best with what they have should be good enough.”
Football needs to change how VAR is used but also accept that it is not perfect.
John Duerden is a Seoul-based writer who covers the sporting scene. He is the author of four books including Lions & Tigers – The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).