Reforming VAR by ripping pages from the NFL’s book

VAR will make its way to the UEFA Champions League in the knockout stages in 2019. The flawed system we know from the Bundesliga can be fixed with a dose of inspiration from the United States.

Why VAR is necessary

Football fans, the Bavarian species, in particular, have every reason to see the video replay as a necessary tool to make the beautiful game a fair one. There is nothing worse than seeing Viktor Kassai a terrible referee making the most questionable calls against your team when it plays Real Madrid a football federation’s current darling, ultimately leading to demise in the Champions League.

Yet, VAR is not mature and its effectiveness limited. Fixing it to take unfair calls out of the game is no small task. It will require time and I have suggestions to make to accelerate that process.

Why VAR is imperfect

Bundesliga fans will rightly point out that the current implementation of VAR misfires. It is, in fact, slightly chaotic.

Referees often hesitate to use it after making questionable calls. The players surround them, begging for a video review of the play. Long arguments ensue. Fans yap on the sidelines. Occasionally, the officials give in and ask for the review officials in Cologne to check out the play for a second opinion.

Cologne provides that opinion and the ref makes his mind before letting the players know what’s going on. The sequence of events is irregular.

Whether you are watching in the stadium or on TV, what happens in front of your eyes is unclear due to poor communications. You either need to take a look at the scoreboard or to hear an announcer confirm the information. There have been a few inaccurate calls.
In other words, the experience is like low-quality bedroom action. It happens too quickly, leaving you confused and unsatisfied.

Why the NFL instant replay is interesting

Although I currently live in Germany, I come from North America and am very familiar with the NFL. European football and FIFA could examine their system for the sake of improvement.

Although I question the name of that sport, I can only sing its praises when it comes to reviewing the difficult decisions.

The first reason behind that statement is the instant replay’s maturity. The first version was first tested in the late 1970s and formally introduced in 1986. Killed due to lack of accuracy in 1991, it went through a transformation and came back in 1999, this time with the addition of challenges.

How does it work, exactly?

Each coach has the right to two challenges per half. If the ref or a linesman makes a dubious call, a coach has the right to throw a flag to signal his challenge. The ref stops the clock and reviews multiple camera angles queued by a video team. Followed by a TV camera, the umpire turns on a microphone to announce the final decision, made by a senior official, loud and clear. No one can possibly miss it either on TV or in the stadium.

If the ref overturns the ruling on the field, the coach keeps his challenge. If not, he loses the challenge and a timeout. This adds an element of risk and reward to the system. Football would have to adapt this aspect and find the appropriate punishment.

Gotta stop the clock

The stoppage – 1.3 reviews per game, 2:25 spent per review on average in 2016 – is a central element to make an additional look at the controversial play to come to the right conclusion, and correct his own call if necessary.

Stopping the clock will sound like blasphemy to football fans. It goes against the continuous flow of the game, which FIFA and UEFA consider sacred. Scores of fans agree with them. However, freezing time would make sense. A single call can change the entire complexion of a match, a factor that cannot be ignored in high-stakes games such as a Champions League semi.

Why is it worth making such a tradeoff? The accuracy of the NFL’s video replay calls is stunning. Replays showed on television usually confirm the ref’s final decision. Fans, players and coaches generally accept them. Numbers are also convincing. NFL refs overturned 43% of the rulings challenged by coaches in 2016, a number that stood at a lowly 29% in 1999. In other words, coaches learned to think strategically before challenging a play.

The NFL itself admits that instant replays are not perfect, but the consistency is still there.

The challenge system brings a further benefit: it shields referees from player pressure. Squad members have to convince their coaches to throw the flag. Both parties know that they will pay the price for losing a challenge.

At the moment, surrounding a football referee, gesticulating and yelling “VAR!” is not very risky.

Final thoughts

The NFL’s instant replay system is an example to follow. It has improved over the last 32 years. The league still considers it as a work in progress and it keeps training its officials to find improvements. Parts of the approach should be used as inspiration and adapted to football.

Details would have to be figured out. How many challenges per half/match? How to punish the teams that lose challenges? FIFA and UEFA would have to find the appropriate answers to avoid violating the spirit of the game.

In exchange for a couple of wasted minutes per match, the game’s stakeholders would gain the confidence that instant replay would rescue them, more often than not, in the case of an official’s mistake.