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Monday Editorial: On Video Replay in Soccer

Allen Chapman admonishes a San Jose player for a foul. Photo by Michael Cox.

Last week the topic de jure was video replay in light of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Replays on television clearly showed that two of Ronaldo’s three goals were offside. This thrust the idea of allowing a referee, either the center or a separate one (or group) to quickly, and efficiently one hopes, to take a minute and check to see if calls were made correctly on important plays.

Fans have spent the past century-plus heatedly talking about how bad referees are regardless of sport. They’re never good enough and ultimately at fault for whatever poor game a fan’s team had, be it a league game, playoffs, or something else. Part of this comes down to the love one has for their team, which is fine and great. No one wants to think their favorite team and players had a bad day (week, month, year, century…), which is something even the refs understand. As other sports rely more heavily on video replay to make sure calls are correct, see the NFL and even MLB for examples, it is only right that soccer follows suit. Right?

Right?

Well…

First, let’s go over what is happening here in our own backyard with Major League Soccer. The man hired to lead the effort stateside is Howard Webb, an English ref with loads of experience, including the 2010 World Cup Final (yes, that game and that call). He’s learned a lot since then and fully believes that video replay could give refs the edge needed to keep up with increasingly faster and more technical players. Already in place are goal-line referees whose sole job is to monitor activity inside the box, much like a side-line ref does. It should be noted that they were used in the afore-mentioned quarterfinal. MLS announced some time ago that starting this summer, league games will be using Video Assistant Replay (or VAR), a system that was tested out during the pre-season and will be used at the USL season all year long.

It’s hoped that the system will be hugely successful in MLS, which could influence the IFAB (basically the rules committee for FIFA) to allow video replay around FIFA. That vote is tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2018 or early 2019.

Under the current guidelines, VAR would only be used on cases of mistaken identity, penalties, direct red cards (not 2 yellows), and goals. So in the Houston Dynamo’s previous game, the VAR would review both goals to determine that no violations of the rules were involved, such as off sides. Not to play spoiler, but both goals were just fine. The VAR would also have reviewed the penalty awarded to Houston to see if Alex was indeed fouled and whether it happened inside the box or not.

Allen Chapman hands San Jose’s Shaun Francis a yellow card. Photo by Michael Cox.

When this system goes into effect, it will still have plenty of kinks to work out. While the dry run in pre-season was largely successful, it was only for a short period of time and not when games mattered. There are still plenty of unknown bugs that will need to be worked out and plenty of worry amongst fans. The biggest worry is the length of time needed for video replay to take effect. In the NFL, games have been bogged down with replays that take some time to review each and with so many during each game, there are large down times between the action. As you, dear reader, don’t need telling (but which I’m going to tell you anyway) one of the beauties of soccer is the constant action. There is little, if any downtime and stoppages for referees will not only drive fans crazy but is downright anathema to the sport.

Another kink in the system of VAR is that ultimately it is still at the whims of humans. Unless there is a lengthy downtime to review plays, it will come down to a judgement call from the referee crew.

To spread this system more broadly around FIFA as a whole, one wonders whether every league can afford such a system without grants. Perhaps the governing body would be open to spending money this way but their history would suggest otherwise.

Personally, I don’t think that VAR is the be-all, end-all solution to referee controversy, nor should soccer look to take the ref crew errors out of the game. Part of the lore comes from referee calls. Ask any longtime Dynamo fan about a particular Superliga match that saw a player ejected with their first yellow card of the game. Or how about Stuart Holden’s ejection in Champions League? Some crazy things have happened and are part of the lore and entertainment. There have also been games where the team overcame a referee crew having a poor game (the proverbial 11 v 12 comment) that made the victory all the sweeter.

Ricardo Salazaar admonishes Seattle’s Chad Marshall. Photo by Gia Quilap.

Also, the best way to get better results from referees isn’t necessarily by using technology. Instead, I prefer the same method used to create better players: high enough salary so they can only focus on the game (and not 2nd and 3rd jobs to make ends meet), excellent training facilities and trainers, and starting them as young as possible. It’s not the sexy route but is a tried and true method. Giving them the proper training, and encouragement, from a young age can do wonders. By offering a living wage as a professional, it’s possible to entice more young refs to stick with the game long enough to get their shot at the professional level.

MLS and the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) have already started this with a CBA that allows for higher salaries and full-time refs. As the league continues to generate more money, those numbers will only increase.

The use of goal-line refs have yet to be used in MLS and is a program I’d personally love to see tested out. It’s a simpler, more elegant solution for a sport that prides itself on those two traits.

Ultimately nothing will “fix” the referee problem because they are only human. And that is ok. It’s human error, and achievement, that leads to stories told down through the years. Ask any team that has been around for a while and they will have tales to tell about referee successes and failures and that is what makes up the fun of sport. While VAR is likely to help, too much will push the sport down the NFL route where minute attention is paid to replays rather than getting on with the game. Instead, it’d be more prudent to increase training and compensation for referees (and perhaps increasing the number of refs).

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