The Trouble with VAR

VAR is like a four-letter word, except it is actually an acronym with only three letters. Maybe that is worse, I don't know, or maybe that is why no one can agree on how, when, and where it should be used. When everyone called for the technology, I guess they did not have realistic expectations for how it would be implemented. One of the problems with VAR is that it is subject to the interpretation of not only those in the VAR booth, but the head referee in particular. However, that is not the only trouble with VAR.


To VAR or not to VAR, that is the question

Milan fans have been talking a lot about VAR and the referees this season. The biggest reason was after our match versus Atético Madrid, where the poor use of VAR saw both the head referee and the head VAR referee suspended for blatant errors. While there are arguments for dubious calls in other matches, that match stands out because the mistakes altered the outcome of the game and even the group, according to many neutral parties. Another referee who was suspended after a Milan match was Maresca, who received a two match suspension after our match against Roma. But his suspension was due to errors overall, not just VAR, nor was the VAR ref suspended after that match.

Fans might also argue the significant differences in penalties awarded against Milan this season, who are near the top of the list in both Serie A and in Europe, having six called against us in all competitions (two in the Derby alone,) and having received four for Milan. Meanwhile, Napoli have not had a single penalty called against them, yet have taken seven penalties. But stats like that are more like comparing apples to oranges. Certainly, Milan have had seasons with an inordinate amount of penalties given to us. While we have seen some definite referee errors work against us, Milan players have also certainly made some ridiculous mistakes this season that led to penalties. This also does not mean that all referees are terrible or that there is a conspiracy against us.


Doveri was widely applauded for his performance here,
despite being poorly positioned for this call and unwilling
to go to the VAR screen to review it

We don't want to become like Inter fans, who literally hold a grudge from a single match 23 years ago. They claim that with VAR, they would have won not only that match, but also a title. But we know all too well that even VAR doesn't always end up getting the calls right. (And also that Inter never win of their own accord.) I recently went back and watched that match, and found that not only was the call in question correct, but Inter players and staff were hysterical and worked themselves up into a frenzy before that call, physically threatening the ref and screaming at him throughout. They went into the match with the mindset that the referees were against them, that there was a conspiracy for certain clubs (cough) Juventus (cough) to get favorable calls. 

The histrionics and conspiracy theories surrounding referees in Italy, especially from Inter, continued. Eventually, some years later, the referee association appointed a referee to speak to all of the clubs because there was so much tension and lack of trust in the refs, as well as a lot of ignorance about how the rules were interpreted. This is how Calciopoli began, because certain clubs (including Milan) were accused of trying to receive favorable treatment from refs, while other clubs (cough) Inter (cough) chose to hide their involvement and actively work to remove their rivals. Seriously, people. We don't need another scandal, Serie A is still trying to recover from that.


Maresca's ban was for more than VAR,
particularly for his "attitude" and record
number of cards given this season.

For some time, referees have traveled to each club ahead of the season to meet with the players and staff and explain any changes in interpretation of the Laws of the Game. Last year, a position was created for a referee to explain decisions to the clubs after matches, similar to pre-Calciopoli. This year, the new designee's role is apparently expanded. Are we going to see another Calciopoli when Inter start whining again? The AIA (Italian referee association) briefly tested a plan this season for a referee to go on television once a weekend to explain any questionable calls. But instead, that just amped up clubs' and fans' anger about decisions, and also paid for the salaries of every sports journalist in Italy by creating even more controversy. While the AIA looks to have more transparency about ref calls to educate the public about the rules and the interpretations of them, the media and social media are a much bigger problem than VAR when it comes to referees.

Isn't it time that we change the narrative surrounding the referees? Serie A was the first to implement VAR technology, and the referees are actually some of the best at utilizing it, contrary to popular opinion. Italy literally trained other leagues and even UEFA on the use of VAR, if I am not mistaken. They have set up a centralized VAR center so that VAR refs cannot be influenced by fans in the stadium, amongst other things. It is not perfect, but Serie A are ahead of the curve and always working to make it better. It is important to remember that for every Maresca, there are 8-9 teams of refs every single weekend who do a very competent job, even if fans will always criticize.


Listen to the master

Pierluigi Collina, the current UEFA head of referees and also the best referee of all time by most people's standards, recently spoke about VAR and how it will be increasingly improved.  He also discussed the fact that the strict uniformity of calls like offside and handball will always be difficult to achieve, because they require individual judgment and interpretation, but that with technology, they will improve over time as well. 

This highlights the biggest problem with VAR itself: it is a tool used by humans, who are fallible. Referees made errors before VAR, and they will continue to do so. VAR has diminished the number of errors, and has vastly increased the accuracy of certain calls in ways that the human eye could not. Another challenge with using VAR is that the technology is only applied with certain actions within the game and not throughout. That means that despite improvement in some ways, VAR is not going to make the refereeing perfect. 


Serie A head refs review plays on monitors more than anywhere else

VAR was controversial before its inception, and will continue to be so, because you cannot stop the match for every missed call. Italian football especially is meant to play fluidly, and using VAR for every single call would destroy the game completely. So while the experts work on improving it, maybe fans on social media and the media themselves could try to learn more about VAR, and the actual rules and league interpretations themselves. Whatever flaws the technology has, whatever errors humans make, the unrealistic expectations and speculations of everyone else are the real trouble with VAR.


This post inspired by the music of Garbage's "I Think I'm Paranoid"


Our next match is
Serie A Week 13
Fiorentina vs. Milan
Saturday, November 20 • 20:45 CET (2:45pm EST)


The Trouble with VAR The Trouble with VAR Reviewed by Elaine on 11:10 PM Rating: 5
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