The introduction of the VAR system in international football was intended to fix mistakes and prevent officiating errors from causing controversy in important matches. However, it is hard to argue the system has worked as intended. There have been countless times since VAR’s introduction that a decision made with the help of the Video Assistant Referee has made a significant, controversial impact on a game.

Ahead of this year’s World Cup, FIFA has introduced some changes for its use at the tournament. However, with only a few months before the World Cup, VAR continues to play a controversial role in games, most recently in Tuesday’s Champions League match between FC Barcelona and Inter Milan.

FC Barcelona vs. Inter Milan Shows the Current Issues With VAR

VAR, when it was introduced, was meant to correct “obvious errors” made by the officials during the game. As the game is played, the Video Assistant Referee views play on the field that includes potential fouls, offsides, or other reviewable plays on replay to determine if an error was made. If it is, they can discuss the play with the officials on the field and assist in correcting the mistake.

In theory, the system should prevent an incorrect or missed decision from having a substantial, avoidable negative impact on the game. The new replay technology, introduced with success in other sports around the world, was intended to improve an aspect of the game in the present and in the future.

However, VAR’s introduction has arguably not gone smoothly, with controversial decisions still occurring in instances where VAR was involved, and continuing in scenarios in which it wasn’t. There have been disagreements over how to decide what is a “clear and obvious error,” regarding penalties and red cards, particularly in the Premier League, and there remains confusion over how offsides decisions are officiated using VAR.

The controversy surrounding VAR was showcased during Tuesday night’s Champions League group stage game between FC Barcelona and Inter Milan. Barcelona’s potential game-tying goal, scored by Pedri in the 67th minute, was eventually overturned after a VAR review. It was seen on replay that Ansu Fati briefly touched the ball with his hand before Pedri scored the goal, and the official, with the help of the Video Assitant Referee and the pitchside monitor, quickly decided that the goal should not stand.

Less than 40 minutes later, just after the start of the 91st minute, VAR again played a role in the outcome of the match. The game was stopped for a review after Barcelona suggested that Inter Milan may have committed a handball within their box. Despite the replays of the play showing a possible handball, the game was continued without a penalty being awarded to Barcelona. Barcelona did not score before the end of added time, losing the game 1-0. All of this occurred after another review regarding an offsides decision in the first half.

The officials’ decisions on Tuesday night were correct according to both the on-field and VAR referees. However, that didn’t prevent arguments over those decisions, how they impacted the game, or VAR in general from beginning or restarting on Tuesday evening. Considering Tuesday’s game and the reaction to VAR since it was introduced, it is easy to see how the system could affect the World Cup.

VAR and the 2022 World Cup

Tuesday’s Champions League match is not the only example of disagreements or controversy regarding VAR since the beginning of the season in August. In September, one of the month’s most important Premier League matches between Manchester United and Arsenal included a Gabriel Martinelli goal that was disallowed in the 12th minute. It was decided that there was a foul committed against Christian Eriksen that allowed Arsenal to take possession just before the goal.

The Premier League again saw VAR have an impact in another important match last weekend. In Saturday’s game between Arsenal and Tottenham, who began the game in first and third respectively, Emerson Royal received a red card after a mistimed, late tackle against Martinelli. Tottenham felt that Royal should have only received a yellow card, but VAR did not view the decision as an error. Arsenal, who already led 2-1, went on to win the game 3-1 and remained first in the Premier League.

Those two incidents, Tuesday’s decision, and others like it have continued to impact the argument over how to decide what is a “clear and obvious error,” and how much of an impact VAR should have on the officiating process and games in general.

For example, the foul committed in the buildup to Martinelli’s goal against Manchester United was committed in midfield, about 10-20 feet away from match official Paul Tierney. Tierney, who was near the tackle and could see it clearly, decided it was not a foul; less than 10 seconds later Martinelli had scored. However, VAR decided that the original decision was a mistake and that the tackle was a foul, and the goal did not count. 20 minutes later Manchester United scored the first goal of the game.

In contrast, on Saturday, Royal’s tackle and subsequent red card were not determined to be a “clear and obvious error,” and as a result, the decision made on the field by official Anthony Taylor was upheld.

In all of these scenarios, and in almost all of the other scenarios like them, there are good arguments both that the foul, card, handball, or goal either should have counted or stood, or that it should have been overturned. In several, if not most, of them, VAR’s decision regarding what constituted a “clear or obvious error,” played an important role in the officials’ final decision.

As a result, a system introduced to lessen confusion for players, fans, and officials alike while correcting errors has often increased confusion without lessening controversy. Important decisions, already frequently controversial, are viewed on replay repetitively in the middle of a match, analyzed on television and social media, and talked about for weeks after a game ends, possibly even more than goals scored or the result of the game itself.

Soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup, begins in less than two months, and FIFA is already addressing how it will implement VAR at the tournament. A new offsides decision system will be introduced, which will provide new graphics that will be shown on television to make it easier for fans to understand why a play was stopped. The new offsides system, which has already been tested in some matches, will also provide automatic offside alerts for officials during games and models players and the position of the ball in 3D space using sensors to avoid errors.

This system should improve the offsides detection in games and help make it easier and more clear to see how VAR is implemented for offsides decisions. It should also allow play to be stopped more quickly after an offside occurs, and, hopefully, even prevent goals from being scored and then subsequently overturned after an offsides review.

However, that doesn’t necessarily address how VAR will be implemented in other decisions. It doesn’t fix issues regarding how to or even whether to, apply the “clear and obvious error” aspect of the decision-making system or how to clearly define what the phrase means.

VAR has helped correct mistakes and likely has improved officiating, although that is difficult to know with any certainty and is hard to effectively prove. At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the issues caused by it. This fall, VAR could significantly impact the World Cup, positively or negatively. In November and December, FIFA will hope to implement the system in a way that positively affects the tournament and avoids the debate caused by decisions made by VAR elsewhere around the world since its official introduction in 2018.