Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) isn’t the first fact-checking technology to be introduced into football. A few others have existed before it, most notably the goal line technology. But it is undeniable that VAR technology has brought the most controversy with it as football lovers grapple with having to sacrifice more passion and intensity of the game in exchange for pinpoint accuracy.
After its official introduction into professional football with the Australian A-League in 2017, America’s Major League Soccer followed suit in the same year. The German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A were the first European football leagues to adopt the system before the English FA Cup delved into it.
VAR technology was eventually written into football laws in March 2018 after which a more improved system was introduced in the Men’s World Cup in Russia later that same year. And depending on who you ask, the reception has been largely positive.
“Introduction of VAR into football is a welcome development,” Jane Frances a football fan says. “It is all shades of good. It is technology fused into football to better the accuracy of the game.”
“It will bring more fairness into the game,” Kehinde who prides himself as a football aficionado says. “Just like they have in tennis, cricket and some other sports, VAR will also reduce the error of referees.”
Anthony agrees with the sentiments shared above insisting that VAR technology is one of the best things to happen to football.
“It’s something you’d always want to fall back on to make the right decisions during the games. It is a nice development,” he says.
Adeleke, an enthusiast of the game, insists the only people who won’t be impressed with its introduction are cheats and match-fixers.
“It will help to end referee bribing and match-fixing so VAR cannot be a bad idea,” he says.
Intensity vs Accuracy
While it might be generally agreed that VAR technology is a welcome development in football, there is still the allegation of ‘murder’ levelled against it because its application tends to kill the intensity and momentum of the game with frequent and sometimes very lengthy breaks.
So, maybe it’s okay for all that intensity and excitement to be traded in exchange for pinpoint accuracy. Maybe it isn’t. But these questions bother me as much as they do a lot of football lovers.
“It does indeed affect the tempo and excitement of the game,” Nnamdi agrees. “But once people get used to the technology they will get used to the disruptions. In fact, with time, the tension during the delay to check replays may bring its own excitement,” he argues.
Anthony explained how important it is that victories are truly earned not just handed out due to oversights which, thanks to VAR technology, have become avoidable.
“It’s true that at that point when the game is paused, the momentum is killed. But again we can still see it as just another instance like throw-ins and corner kicks when games are paused. So we can take VAR checks as one of those reasons why games have to be paused and restarted.”
Kehinde disagrees that the introduction of VAR technology kills the momentum and excitement of games insisting on the contrary that it has even brought more excitement into football. He referenced the Champions League quarter-final clash between Manchester City and Tottenham where City had the goal that would have taken them into the semi-final disallowed.
“To City fans it killed their celebration but to Tottenham fans it was the best moment of the game. But from a general point of view, it heightens the excitement because now if you score a goal, you have to wait for confirmation. That is also an excitement of its own.”
VAR meets African football
It would take Africa another year after VAR technology was incorporated into football law to introduce the technology into its system. Its trial at the CAF Champions League, however, in my humble estimation, ended in an embarrassing disaster.
Undeterred, CAF still went ahead to announce its application at the just-concluded Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2019) tournament in Egypt. Very much aware of its own limitations. CAF employed this technology in the latter part of the competition. Was that smart?
“Well, it’s good that they took their time to arrange it well and get it right when they finally brought it,” Adeleke says.
Citing the opening game between hosts, Egypt and Zimbabwe where the only goal of the match, an Egyptian goal, should have been disallowed for offside, Kehinde thinks it was bad judgement not to employ VAR technology from the early stages of AFCON 2019.
“VAR should have been used from the inception of the tournament or it’s better you don’t have it at all. But they say it’s better late than never so maybe next time in Cameroon 2021 we will get it right.”
“I think VAR should have been used from the start of AFCON 2019 or not used at all,” Nnamdi affirmed.
Rating VAR at AFCON 2019
It hardly seems fair that a system which seeks to ensure fairness and justice in the game of football was unfairly denied the countries which participated in the group stage of the AFCON 2019 competition. But its introduction into the latter stages, I want to believe, worked pretty efficiently.
“It was a successful outing,” Jane Frances says to me. “It’s good that Africa joined the trend and improved on our officiating.”
Citing the semi-final between Nigeria and South Africa and the final between Senegal and Algeria as examples, Nnamdi notes that VAR was a success because it helped referees make the right decisions thus saving them the flak from angry fans.
“It reduced the usual outrage directed at officials for alleged bias in awarding or chalking off goals and in giving red cards,” he says.
Kehinde adopts a slightly different stance insisting that since the VAR technology wasn’t implemented for the full tournament, it would be difficult to give them full marks. “Well, it is relative. But overall I’ll give CAF 7/10,” he says.
“Considering how unprepared we are for it, for them to successfully use it in AFCON 2019 without stories and no complains, I think it is a success,” Adeleke says. “We saw how it went for the champions league final and now the VAR has landed them in court. If the AFCON own didn’t end like that, then it is a success.”
VAR as a major setback for Africa on the global stage
It is no longer news that African countries haven’t fared too well under the keen eyes of VAR on the global stage. The Super Eagles of Nigeria for instance were denied a vital penalty in their 2018 World Cup game against Argentina when the ball struck an Argentine defender in the arm inside the Argentine danger area.
In the recently-concluded 2019 Women’s World Cup, the Cameroonian team was denied several times by VAR, a situation which forced the African side into an angry protest that lasted several minutes and led world football governing body FIFA to open investigations against them over what it termed ‘disgraceful conduct’.
So, are African countries being targeted on the global stage as many people seem to believe?
Jane Frances believes it is purely coincidental that African countries seem to be more adversely affected by VAR decisions than anyone else.
“I don’t believe it is purposely designed to limit African teams because we have seen it work against European teams as well. But unfortunately, because the referees are humans, they also have team preferences and may become picky about when and when not to apply VAR,” she says.
“The only reason why we would want to see it as a limitation for African teams is probably the illiteracy level,” Anthony says. “More education about VAR should be put into our football in Africa so that our players and officials will understand it properly.”
Kehinde thinks the claim that VAR targets African countries is an outright falsehood. Citing the games I mentioned above, he declares that every decision made in those games were spot on.
“African teams are just getting used to it. That’s why we get frustrated every time it goes against us. VAR technology tries as much as possible to eradicate and reduce human error and make everything fair,” he says.
Still, it is only normal that people feel frustrated when big decisions don’t go their way. And just as Africans complain that the technology doesn’t benefit Africa, so also do other people who were denied by VAR complain that it is a disaster to them.
Is Africa truly ready for VAR?
From the need to educate officials to the need to educate players, from a calamitous outing in the CAF champions league final to partial implementation at AFCON 2019, VAR in Africa appears to me like it is standing on very wobbly legs for now.
Are we truly ready to run this race with the rest of the world?
“Definitely, Africa is ready for VAR,” Jane Frances says. “We need it more than other continents. What we just need is sincerity in its application.”
Kehinde seems to agree with Jane Frances, insisting that if other football confederations are already applying VAR technology into their games, Africa must not be left behind.
“African football itself is ready. The technology is there but we know it is quite expensive. But Africa always finds a way to mess things up like the CAF champions league final. So while the football itself is ready for VAR, Africa is a late starter and may not be ready for its implementation now.”
Nnamdi tows the same path as Kehinde above insisting that the football itself is in dire need of the kind of sanitisation VAR could bring.
“Africa actually needs it the most because of the litany of shameful negative practices in the African game. The referees also need better orientation because they have the final call despite VAR replays.”
Adeleke simply thinks Africa is not ready for VAR technology in any way.
“We have to bring the technology here to educate our referees, players and others so they can get used to it. We still have a lot of things to put in order to get to where we want. So we are not prepared.”
If VAR is a system designed to bring fairness into the game, it would therefore hardly be fair that it wasn’t employed while determining who progresses from the group stage of AFCON 2019. If it is a technology designed to bring justice. Choosing to employ it indiscriminately during the course of competition could lead to a situation that quickly gets messy.
The reasons for their partial use both times were practically the same; cost, technological knowhow (European officials were actually head of VAR at the AFCON 2019) and referees and match officials who know little or nothing about its application.
In light of the lingering concerns so far, these would be the questions that need answering: how long before VAR is introduced to various national leagues across Africa? When would the Nigerian league, for example, be ready for it?
That Africa needs to keep up with other confederations in VAR and other technologies are easier said than done. We just hope that in keeping up, we don’t end up embarrassing ourselves even more.
In the final analysis, Africa, in general, doesn’t seem ready for VAR even though our football is in dire need of it. It wouldn’t be a crime if we waited until we are.
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