Ian Darke: Why I fell out of love with VAR

9:20 AM ETIan DarkeESPN.com writer

CloseDarke, who called games for the network during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, is ESPN lead soccer voice in the United States. He has covered the Barclays Premier League and the Champions League since 1982, and has one of the world’s most recognizable soccer voices.

Is football a better or worse spectacle since the introduction of VAR? Is it delivering justice or turning off the fans? Those are key questions for FIFA to consider.

What would be the result of a poll among professional players and managers if they given the chance to scrap the whole idea? I think I know. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has already said he is “not a fan,” while Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne declared himself unsure of what the laws of the game are anymore after so many tweaks. That is worrying.

The feeling grows among many ex-pros and pundits I talk to that football was better as it was, complete with the mistakes and controversies that make the sporting world go round. A perception has grown that the new technology is a killjoy, combing the action like a pedant and looking for reasons to rule out goals.

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As a TV commentator, I started as a big supporter of VAR. I thought it would right a few blatant wrongs and generally make the referees’ job news24nationificantly easier. But it hasn’t. I was wrong. So let us go back to the beginning here.

VAR was introduced to stop serious errors, like Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal for Argentina against England at the 1986 World Cup, or the unspotted Thierry Henry handball in extra time that helped France end the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of reaching the 2010 tournament. These and a few other incidents — like the red card West Germany goalkeeper Toni Schumacher escaped for wiping out and seriously injuring Patrick Battiston of France in an epic 1982 World Cup clash — were major howlers that video technology would have helped to correct.

The original idea of VAR was a good one: to prevent serious miscarriages of justice, help under-pressure referees and produce a better game. But that laudable aim has been lost. It has become way too intrusive, which is why there needs to be a major rethink by FIFA about the way forward.

Realistically, VAR is not going to be scrapped. So how do we make it better?

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Is there really a need for every goal to be scrutinised microscopically to see if there might have been an infringement at some point in the build-up, like the disallowed Liverpool goal at Spurs for a handball on the halfway line a good 10 seconds before it was scored? A lot happened between that moment and the ball hitting the net — surely all of that was just part of the cut-and-thrust of the game. The referee missed it, but how far back do you go? The kick-off?

How about FIFA decreeing that any post-goal checks will involve only the scorer and the player who provided the assist? Or maybe put a time limit of five seconds before the goal?

These days, every crucial Premier League decision runs through VAR, which has veered away from what was intended when it was introduced. Laurence Griffiths/PA Images via Getty Images

Fans most despise the minuscule offside decisions, which are a flawed concept because if you are going to deal in millimetres, then you have to know the exact moment the ball was last played, and the 50 frames per second technology being used by the cameras can’t do that. What were once deemed perfectly good goals are now being ruled out on decisions so fractional as to be farcical given the misapplication of science involved. Most ridiculous of all was the one given against Leeds striker Patrick Bamford at Crystal Palace as he pointed where he wanted the ball to be played, meaning a bit of his shoulder was in an offside position.

Moments like that — and there have been too many — fly in the face of the spirit of the game we love. They leave a sour taste. As things stand, the difference between being onside or off might be the size of boots you wear, or whether you have close-cropped or long hair.

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p class=”contentItem__subhead”>Shaka Hislop has his say on the controversial VAR decision to rule out Jordan Henderson’s winning goal.

So another suggestion: By all means use a freeze frame and a single thick line to judge offside, but the decision has to be made with the naked eye as it was before. Once you need those dreaded artificial lines to sort it out, just call it level and onside. The “clear daylight” idea is a good one, too. The benefit of the doubt was always meant to be with the attacking team, and this would restore it.

Handball has always been a tricky area, and short of saying it is a penalty every time a ball is handled in the area, accidentally or otherwise, it’s hard to know how to clarify the current improved interpretations. Having said that, the handball and penalty given against Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand in the defeat against Wolves on Sunday had us scratching our heads. The ball was blasted at Bertrand from fairly close range; he half-turned his back and the ball struck his hand, which was hardly in an “unexpected or unnatural” position given the evasive action he was taking. It’s hard to see how that game-changing penalty was given, but it is another example of how convoluted and difficult the laws and interpretations have become. Simplification and consistency are both needed.

Generally speaking, it has been a bad season for VAR. Its supporters would argue there are more correct decisions than before, but at what cost to the flow of the game and the entertainment value of the product? The spontaneous explosion of joy for a goal has been devalued by the realisation that an invisible private investigator in West London may be about to rule it out for a reason the fans don’t quite understand.

The referees have not helped themselves. The red card, later rescinded, handed out last week by Mike Dean to West Ham’s Tomas Soucek for what was obviously an accidental use of the elbow was just embarrassing. Why did VAR Lee Mason get involved?

Arguably the worst challenge of the campaign was somehow missed by VAR, when Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford clattered wildly into Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk and ended his season back in October. Bizarrely, there was not even a retrospective red card for that one!

VAR has a long way to go to win over the people who play and watch the game for a living, let alone the supporters. FIFA perhaps need to strip the whole thing down and re-stress to officials: “Stay out of it unless there was a very major miscarriage of justice.”

Obviously VAR can still be a useful tool, but things have to change drastically to prevent the widespread perception that it has become a pain in the neck and has stopped football being fun.