KEIR RADNEDGE ANALYSIS** —- Pierluigi Collina said it. Massimo Busacca said it. Roberto Rossetti said it: The buck must stop with the referee on the pitch. He or she is the single individual among the ever-expanding cast of match officials who should award a goal or disallow one, decree a penalty or deny it, flash a red card or a yellow.
Not, however, as far as the Premier League and Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the unhappily ugly acronym PGMOL.
The botched introduction of video assistance refereeing into the Premier League has been the story of the season. Totally unnecessarily. All English football had to do was follow the pattern laid down first at the World Cup in Russia and, subsequently, in the Champions League. But no. The English knew better.
VAR’s mangled arrival has reawakened all the memories of the we-know-best arrogance which sparked so much mistrust within the outside world – right back to 1904 when the French and Belgians asked the Football Association to lead the creation of a world governing body.
Famously FA secretary Sir Frederick Wall said it would go on the agenda for the next executive meeting . . . in six months’ time.
Greg Clarke, current chairman of the FA has run up an eco-defiant catalogue of air miles renewing old friendships and developing new ones all in the cause of presenting a fuzzier, sensitive face to the world. Hence he was duly voted on to the UEFA executive committee and from thence to the FIFA Council.
Yet still that old self-righteousness lurks in the shadows as the VAR fiasco has illustrated.
The law-making International Football Association Board approved worldwide use of VAR in the spring of 2018 after 18 months of trials around the world and in time for FIFA president Gianni Infantino to order up its utilisation in Russia. Even he entertained lingering doubts over its rationality. But he was trapped by his election campaign promises and, in the end, the novelty proved worthwhile. Concern that FIFA had been over-hasty proved groundless.
So far, so good.
UEFA duly brought VAR on board for the Champions League, with one or two minor refinements of interpretation. But nothing major. Refereeing bosses Collina and Busacca at FIFA and Rosetti at UEFA could all be satisfied with an initial job well done.
This had been a challenge not only of technology but of persuasion. Any man of woman who dare enter the refereeing arena needs a powerful ego. That is essential to maintain self-belief, week-in, week-out, in the face of players who push the laws to the limit, the temper tantrums of footballers and coaches obsessed only with their own objectives and a mass media in permanent pursuit of mischief.
As Busacca told this writer: “It was not easy to explain to the referees that someone else was looking at the incidents and maybe having a better view. It offended their pride. I understand. I would have felt the same.
“Remember when we introduced the spray to press the wall back at free kicks? Many of our referees did not like that, which is a comparatively small development compared with VAR. For one thing, they objected to carrying the spray can in addition to everything else. Many referees objected that they should be allowed to impose their own personality on the players.
“But then they tried it . . . and changed their minds.”
Imagine how, if so many referees felt undermined by using the spray, how they would feel at taking orders in their ears from another referee not necessarily there in the stadium but hundreds of miles away, insulated from the dramatic pressure in front of a bank of television screens.
The reason it worked at the World Cup was down to three basic reasons. Firstly, the World Cup referees had undergone all the basic preparation together, as a team; secondly, they knew they were the world’s best and had a high level of trust in themselves and each other; and thirdly, all were ambitious to progress as far as possible in the finals and if they could be saved from error, so much the better.
Rossetti, at UEFA, has taken a similar approach. He has also been fortunate in that Europe’s major leagues use VAR so the referees are confident and competent in working with the new tool.
A major surprise, after IFAB approved VAR for worldwide use, was that the Premier League – the world leader in marketing and money-making – did not order up its immediate introduction. Indeed, had it done so then more tolerance might have been shown by managers, fans and media for the initial problems. But no such tolerance or patience was awaiting when the Premier League eventually joined the VAR club, a year later than necessary.
The initial concern by the EPL and PGMOL was understandable: that fans would object to the lengthy down-time interruptions while VAR was activated in mid-match. Hence the crucial – and self-defeating – order for referees to ignore the option of running over to the pitchside monitor.
This had two negative effects. One was perception: if the fans see the referee going over to the monitor then at least they see some dramatic action and know that something is happening – far better than the awful wasted minutes of watching the referee with a finger stuck in his ear.
But the second effect has been the worst: the referees on the pitch have had no option but to accept the Order of the VAR even in subjectively contentious areas such as handball. He/she, down on the ground, knows that the VAR has the benefit of a multiplicity of camera angles and a better view of the incident. No longer are they in charge of the match. The greatest responsibility has been removed from them.
This is not what IFAB intended. It is not what Collina, Busacca and Rosetti – all once top-flight referees themselves – want or wanted.
If VAR is to work in the Premier League then power must be restored to the referees. That means use of the pitchside monitor [as by Michael Oliver at Crystal Palace yesterday, at last]. It also means the Premier League falling in line with the rest of the game. Not for the first time, English football has only itself to blame for being left behind.
*** This article appeared first in the December issue of World Soccer: https://www.worldsoccer.com/publication/world-soccer/world-soccer-december-2019