The 2018 World Cup is better thanks to VAR

Commentary: Soccer's latest video replay technology is coming under fire from all angles, but it's making the World Cup fairer. Surely that's a good thing?

Mark Serrels Editorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Mark Serrels
4 min read
FIFA World Cup 2018 - Iran vs Portugal

The ref signals for VAR, a controversial form of video replay review that has dominated World Cup headlines.

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When I think about VAR, I think about a chaotic 5-minute period in Australia's opening World Cup group match against France.

In the second half of the match: A tackle. On first glance an incredible piece of defending. Josh Risdon with a perfectly timed slide on a surging Antoine Griezmann. Risdon seemed to clip the ball, stopping what could have been a clear goal scoring opportunity for France. Happy times.

But no.

Enter the Video Assistant Referee, better known as VAR, a new system whereby four officials -- with the assistance of video footage from 33 different cameras -- communicate directly with the on-field referee. In this case, VAR overruled the decision. The verdict: Risdon's tackle was not a fair one. It appeared as though Risdon made contact with the ball, but he didn't. We were unsure if Risdon actually clipped Griezmann, but he did.

Risdon had committed a foul. France now had a penalty, which they promptly scored.

On Twitter, Australian fans erupted. This was the first VAR reversal ever in an international soccer match and, for many Australian fans, this was proof the VAR endeavour was a farce designed to ruin their World Cup hopes and soccer as a sport. 

But then, 4 minutes later, Australia was also granted a penalty.

Much like the penalty granted on the other side of the pitch, it was a clear penalty, but a relatively soft decision. French defender Samuel Umtiti did make hand contact with the ball inside the box, but it's a penalty few referees would have given.

Unless they had VAR to fall back on. Which they did.

The referee's decision was reviewed and confirmed. Australia scored the penalty. The teams were even. VAR giveth and VAR taketh away.

VAR, like all video technology in sport, is controversial. Particularly now, during its initial introduction. This is understandable. Players, fans and coaches are acclimatising to VAR at a moment when the stakes have never been higher. This is the World Cup. Every match matters, every goal matters, every refereeing decision matters.

Soccer is in a transition phase and fans are screaming from the rooftops: VAR is ruining soccer, VAR is ruining the legitimacy of the sport, VAR is ruining the flow of the beautiful game. Here's former England midfielder James Milner:

Counterpoint: What if VAR is actually good?

Some context: Other sports have been quick to implement video review systems. In 2018 they're commonplace. Tennis has Hawk-Eye, to help reverse poor umpire calls; cricket has UDRS, to help match officials with decision making; the NFL has replay review.

All had teething problems, all are now an accepted part of the sport. In that sense, soccer is late to the party.

Iran v Portugal: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

This is partly because of soccer as a culture and the language we use to describe it. There's a snobbery about soccer that's been difficult to shake. Soccer is "the beautiful game", a "pure" experience stripped of the pomp and glitz of, say, the NFL. Soccer isn't a sport, it's performance.

And when people criticise VAR, it's usually done using this lexicon. A lexicon rooted in antiquated ideas: The idea that football (unlike other sports) is art, that technology is antiart, that we're tarnishing the storied legacy of soccer with cold, exacting science. Ideas which are, of course, reductive and flat-out weird.

Soccer, like tennis or NFL or cricket, is just a sport and all sport demands a level of fairness. If we have the technology to enhance that fairness we should embrace it. Period. VAR is far from perfect, but it's a starting point. The focus should be on refining its use, not abandoning it because of antiquated ideas about "high" and "low" art.

Soccer has been crying out for a system like VAR for decades. The history of the World Cup is littered with the legacy of controversial refereeing decisions.

England won the World Cup in 1966 thanks to a goal that, to this day, Germans claim didn't actually cross the line. Conversely England were denied in almost the exact same circumstances during a 4-1 beating in the 2010 World Cup. People still discuss the notorious "Hand of God", when Maradona infamously punched the ball into the net in 1986.

Imagine a world where those decisions had been verified or reversed, to the point where there was no debate? Where the decisions were 100 percent fair. Surely that's better for the sport? Surely we can take the lessons currently being learned and implement a better, fairer system for all players and all teams? Surely that's possible.

In the wake of their loss to France there was a lot of commentary surrounding VAR and its impact on the match. France didn't beat Australia, said some, technology beat Australia.

That's arguable, but it makes you wonder. For the past 12 years Australians have been complaining about their own controversial World Cup moment.

In the dying minutes of a second-round match during the 2006 World Cup, Fabio Grosso fell (many say "dived"), securing Italy a penalty and a 1-0 victory over Australia. The best ever Australian soccer team was knocked out of the competition and Italy went on to win the trophy. We mumped and moaned back then, much like we're mumping and moaning right now.

But if VAR was in place back in 2006, things might have been different. Almost certainly, things would have been fairer.

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