In life, nothing is certain except death, taxes and, in the case of professional sports, poor officiating. Missed calls happen every night; referees are human and making mistakes is a part of the game. However, with how much revenue professional sports generate and the goal to promote fairness, video reviews have become the norm in almost every major sports league across the globe. The English Premier League (EPL) takes no exception to this notion, utilizing a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for every match.
In the 2019-2020 campaign, the EPL debuted the VAR and its primary function was to look at calls subject to human error, such as offside or handballs. The thought was that VAR would preserve the integrity of the game and clubs wouldn’t feel “robbed” if they fell victim to a touchy call. One of the most famous examples of the need for video replay occurred in the 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarter-Final match between Argentina and England. In that iconic fixture, Diego Maradona had one of the most famous, yet illegal, goals in the history of soccer. Six minutes into the second half, Maradona received a ball in the box deflected off an England defender. England’s goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, jumped forward with his hand outstretched to try and deny a possible header. Maradona launched forward, with his hand balled up into a fist next to his head, and hit the ball with his hand, giving Argentina the 1-0 advantage. England protested the score. However, none of the officials had a clear view of the handball and since there was no video replay in 1986, the “Hand of God” goal stood.
In today’s game, video replay checks everything from offsides to season-ending scores and it has worked eloquently worldwide. Conversely, the EPL’s take on this issue has been a disaster. The VAR added to its long list of blunders in Monday’s match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.
The first half of this match was a complete mess. It saw four disallowed goals due to either offside or a foul. There was also a free-for-all scuffle between Chelsea’s Levi Colwill and Tottenham’s Pape Matar Sarr, which saw nearly two minutes wasted for review after the referee made the call.
Four goals disallowed isn’t the issue; they were the right decisions. However, it took longer than it should have to confirm the on-field call, killing any momentum built and making it difficult to watch as a fan. The VAR checks took so long that the officials determined that 12 minutes of stoppage time needed to be added to the first half. For a league that generates over £5.5 billion a year in revenue, it should not take anywhere near three minutes to determine something as clear-cut as offsides. What’s the point of having a referee on the pitch if every call is going to be checked?
“All we’ve come here for is to see a decent game of football, not people playing around with video machines.” NBC Sports commentator Jon Champion noted on air during Monday’s fixture, “This first half has been as scarred by VAR intervention as any I can remember.”
The EPL needs to give the VAR less responsibility and follow in the shadows of other soccer bodies. The UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Serie A all implement semi-automated offside technology. This technology is fast and accurate, as it takes only a few seconds to determine if a player timed his run correctly. Another side benefit is that it eliminates any human error.
It doesn’t just take an eternity to get these obvious calls, but the human error associated with the VAR has been atrocious. Former VAR official Lee Mason forgot to draw the computerized offside lines on the screen during a matchup between Arsenal and Brentford last February. Mason’s error wrongly awarded the Bees a game-tying goal, a mistake that changed the outcome from a Gunners’ victory to a draw. This incident wouldn’t have occurred had the EPL implemented semi-automated offside technology.
No other soccer league in the world is as exciting as the EPL. Not only is the talent the highest, but there are different clubs at the top of the table every season, with weekly upsets. For instance, in 2016, Leicester City, a club with 5000-1 preseason odds, won the league outright despite being significantly outspent by the pre-season title favorites. They were a team in the relegation fight just a year prior. Five different clubs have been the kings of England in the past 10 years. In this season, it’s anyone’s guess which teams will be the last one standing come May 19.
Despite boasting the highest viewership of any soccer body in the world, the officiating is as poor as a Sunday league match. Every week, there seems to be a new VAR controversy, with last Monday being another drop in the bucket. The fact of the matter is that these errors are preventable. The EPL must radically change officials’ roles because fans are tired of the theatrics. If the EPL continues to do nothing, they risk gaining a reputation of sloppiness and incompetence instead of drama and talent.