The False Dialectic of the Video Assistant Referee in Premier League Soccer

At the beginning of the current Premier League season, the Football Association (FA), English football’s governing body, officially implemented the instant officiating replay system known as the Video Assistant Referee.

The Video Assistant Referee (affectionately called VAR) had already been in use in the Spanish and Italian leagues, as well as the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA World Cup.

Many fans of the game heralded the arrival of VAR as the end of refereeing controversies, especially over penalties and offside calls. Fans of smaller clubs have long accused referees in the Premier League of giving larger teams the benefit of the doubt on offside calls and penalties, and they saw VAR as an innovation that would even the playing field.

To put it philosophically, VAR was the final stop on the pathway of refereeing. There can now be little doubt over the veracity of a given call, with the unbiased computer eye there to correct any “clear and obvious” error the referee might make; the introduction of VAR, to some, has signaled the “end of refereeing.”

But, the belief that VAR would bring about the end of controversial refereeing decisions was a foolish one.

In the first match week of the season, Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus thought that he had scored a late winner against Tottenham, only to find out after wheeling away in celebration that his teammate Aymeric Laporte was alleged to have handled the ball in the buildup, negating the goal.

I’m no Manchester City fan, but in Jesus’ defense, the call was questionable. The ball glanced off Laporte’s elbow after a headed flick from striker Sergio Agüero. It certainly wasn’t intentional, and Laporte was holding his arm in a natural location. Tottenham fans breathed a sigh of relief, and Manchester City fans fumed in protest.

Had it not been for VAR, it’s likely no one would have noticed that the ball had grazed Laporte’s arm, meaning VAR was not doing its job of correcting a “clear and obvious” error by the referee. Going by the letter of the law however, the ball did hit Laporte on the arm in the buildup to the goal and thus shouldn’t stand.

Far from being an isolated incident, this call was just the first of many VAR decisions that have angered football fans across England. Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino had a goal called off against Aston Villa because the edge of his armpit was “marginally ahead of the last defender,” per the FA.

Liverpool later became the lucky side in a matchup with Wolverhampton Wanderers, as a goal from striker Pedro Neto was ruled out because his teammate Jonny’s toe had been offside earlier in the play.

As often as VAR has been criticized for making rulings, fans have also bemoaned when VAR has supposedly seen nothing wrong. In that same Manchester City v. Tottenham fixture, City’s midfielder Rodrigo was clearly dragged down in the box during a corner, but VAR saw no reason to give a penalty. And in the Wolves v. Liverpool game with Jonny’s offside toe, Liverpool’s first goal came after an obvious handball from Liverpool centerback Virgil van Dijk that was never called.

Brought in to fix the crisis of faith in refereeing, VAR has seemingly only made that problem worse.

I see the decision VAR gives in a game as a continuation of the tradition of using the dialectical approach to seeking truth. The referee’s call on the field is the thesis, the objections from opposing fans and players the antithesis and finally, VAR’s decision as the synthesis, reconciling the two viewpoints in one accurate ruling. Like all dialectics, VAR is supposed to transcend emotional pleas, especially from the jeering home fans and irate managers.

Yet VAR will always fall short of this lofty ambition. Its techniques are too trivial, too imperfect and too subjective. How does the computer decide the exact moment a through-ball was played? How does it interpret whether a player’s arm is in a “natural position?” Perhaps this is too postmodern, but football fans like to assume the existence of a universal, rational truth that I fear doesn’t exist. They want to be able to claim with certainty that Aymeric Laporte didn’t handle the ball, or that Roberto Firmino was offside. And even if this truth exists, it is undoubtedly too esoteric to be practical, even for the highly precise eye of VAR.