Football: does video refereeing respect the spirit of the game?

In 2017, football France discovered VAR, for Video Assistant Referee, video assistant referee in French. Already used by the cousin of rugby, this device is supposed to help referees make fewer errors, and thus less influence the final result of a match.

Concretely, UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, explains that “The stadium’s VAR team intervenes in the event of an obvious error in the following four very specific situations that could change the course of the match: a goal, an incident in the penalty area, a red card or an error in the identity of the players. players “. Since its appearance, however, the VAR has struggled to gain unanimity, praised on the one hand for sporting fairness but accused on the other of going against “the spirit of the game”.

Technology everywhere

Football, and therefore its refereeing, has never been frozen. Realize: at the origin, in the XIXe century, there were even two field referees, each of the two teams providing an official! In a constantly evolving sport, and in the digital and all-technological age, the implementation of VAR is not an anomaly in itself. “Technology is everywhere in football, nods Paul Dietschy, sports historian at the University of Franche-Comté. It is in the impeccable semi-synthetic turf, in the equipment of the players, supposed to improve their performances, until the electronic stopwatch, much more practical for the referees. “

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With the precision that is its own, video assistance leaves no room for interpretation or doubt to decide whether the ball has crossed the goal line or if a player is out of play, and allows for more equity. between the two teams. Proof by example: on March 27, at the last minute of the Portugal-Serbia meeting, in a qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup, Lusitano striker Cristiano Ronaldo saw his goal be refused, while the ball was fine. and well into the opposing goal.

Impossible to verify, however: for logistical reasons, the VAR and the goal line technology, which is used precisely in this case, are not used during the European qualifiers for the World Cup. Bad luck for the Portuguese, who had to content themselves with a draw… If the VAR was debated at that time, it was precisely because it was conspicuous by its absence.

“The spirit of the game”

With VAR, no more happy mistakes that have made the history of this sport, ” hand of God “ from Diego Maradona to that of Thierry Henry against Ireland in 2009. A very understandable development, given all the extra-sporting issues around a discipline which brews more and more money every year.

So, what’s wrong with video assistance? “To interrupt a match for five minutes and ultimately refuse a goal because of an offside little finger, plague Romain, Marseille supporter and football lover. The problem is not the video, it’s the use we make of it, it goes against the spirit of the game. “ From there to saying that you have to allow yourself a few largesse and voluntarily forget to whistle, there is only one step …

“This is the old dilemma of letter and spirit, explains Paul Dietschy. Should we apply the rule to the letter, however hard it may be, even for an offside of a few millimeters, or can we allow ourselves a margin of appreciation? “ More broadly, the question of video assistance is above all that of the human and interpretation part that we want to leave in the game.

The role of the arbitrator

The problem with VAR is also that of the referee’s disempowerment. What is it for, one wonders, if his assistant is blowing him into the headset what to whistle, or if he passes and repeats the same images in a loop before making a decision? These lengths in a match, which cut the pace and make players and supporters lose patience, also contribute in a way to removing magic from the sport. “Symbolically, football has often been a metaphor for life: sometimes we win, sometimes we lose and sometimes it’s thanks to a twist of fate, an injustice for some and luck for others”, abounds Paul Dietschy.

The difficulty is also this gray area, where everyone agrees to use the VAR, estimating “That you have to use it but not for hours” as Romain says. Where is the limit ? How long does it take for the referees to render their decision? These questions have no rational solution… and remain subject to the appreciation of the arbitrator who is, above all, a human being.

For this Euro delayed by one year due to the Covid, the VAR is present to support the referees. Let’s take advantage: “Perhaps in twenty years, artificial intelligence will have entirely replaced the man in black”, laughs Paul Dietschy. And then maybe we’ll look back with nostalgia back to when the whistle was still in the mouth of a flesh-and-blood referee.


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