Right off the bat, I should give a subtle disclaimer that this is not intended as an attack on the use of video technology in the game of football, but rather as a critique of its current state of implementation (which raises more questions than it answers). Last night’s Confederations Cup match between Chile and Cameroon brought light to some of the ways in which the VAR technology in its current state is akin to false positive/negative tests in the medical industry.
It was as if the footballing pun gods had a field day at work, with the man at the center of controversy in both goals having VAR in his name. The first goal was rightly deemed offside, as Vargas had just gone beyond the last Cameroon defender by the tiniest of margins. However, the delay and confusion surrounding the incident and the final call by the referee was unsettling to say the least. Needless to say, there are still plenty of questions that need answering. For example, who makes the decision to refer to video technology for reviewing is still unclear.
Is it initiated by the referee, or by the VAR? Is the VAR a single person or as the TV screens suggested last night, a panel of people? Who among them has the final call? Why doesn’t the person in-charge of making the call do it in lesser time, as soon as the final ball is played by Vidal? Why isn’t that decision immediately relayed to the ref?
The second call, though, is the focus of this piece. This time around, VAR got it wrong it seems. The sequence of events was such: Alexis runs on to a ball over the last line of defense, the flag stays down. He dribbles past the goalkeeper, who is now behind the ball. It’s Alexis and Vargas, and two Cameroonian defenders. Alexis fluffs his lines, the rebound falls into the path of Vargas who puts the ball in the back of the net. The assistant referee has his flag raised for offside (inexplicably). VAR is put to work, and the call from upstairs is that the goal stands. VAR checks for Alexis being onside, and then checks for Vargas being onside on the rebound. Both are deemed onside, and the goal stands.
The picture above is part of what was used by VAR to rule Alexis onside for the ball over the top. It shows his feet clearly behind the line, which was drawn parallel to the halfway line and is exactly at the point of the foot of the last Cameroonian defender (their RB). Hence, this passage of play is deemed onside. However, when you look at it from a different angle, a different story emerges.
In this picture, Alexis’ body is clearly inclined forward when the pass is played. Therefore, Alexis is beyond the last defender and should be ruled offside. However, his body tilt was not accounted for by the VAR technology, which seems to have mapped player coordinates using a 1D (pitch being the x-axis) approach rather than a 2D approach (with the y-axis being perpendicularly upwards from the pitch).
With a 2D approach, this might have perhaps resulted in Alexis being called offside, as the point of observation for Alexis would have been his furthermost body part (in the direction of the tilt; his head in this case), rather than the static point of his feet.
Several other questions are also raised with VAR. One that is particularly intriguing simply asks this: how long back in the passage of play does the VAR check for a foul or some other error that went unnoticed? One can make a strong case to any argument here: some will say from the point the ball was in play, to which others might counter and question the decision of the ball even going out. There needs to be a faster turnaround time in the decision-making process. Should there be a limit on how many calls a team gets per match like Tennis and Cricket?
The use of video technology has undoubtedly reduced wrong calls in a lot of major sports, such as Baseball, Basketball, etc. However, there is a certain romantic element to human error in the game of football. Of course, there are other concerns, like over-commercialization of the game with innumerable stoppages like American Football and Basketball, which threatens to take away the beauty of the game. Although that is a slippery slope that merits its own attention, that’s talk for a different occasion altogether. Yes, technology has the potential to make football better by weeding out incorrect decisions, but the technology in its current state is still at a nascent stage, and much work needs to be done on it before it is put to use at the higher levels of the sport.
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