The introduction of VAR to the Bundesliga has been so badly mismanaged, that some have called for it to be banned. Yet this is not the solution and, like it or not, VAR is here to stay, writes DW's Chuck Penfold.
Who would have thought that the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) could lead to so much controversy?
After all, under the guidance of former FIFA referee Hellmut Krug, the Bundesliga had already tested the system "offline" for an entire season. According to Krug, the dry run went very well, with the VARs discovering 104 wrong decisions in 2016-17, 77 of which could have been corrected using video replay.
With video replays being successfully implemented for years in sports like ice hockey, American football, baseball or rugby, it seemed like even history was on their side. It all sounded quite promising.
Yet when it came to the first half of this Bundesliga season, the use of VAR went so wrong that you would be forgiven for wondering if somebody simply didn't want it to succeed.
Moving the goal posts
The system was only meant to be used in cases of a "clearly incorrect decision" in four specific areas (goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity), but within a few weeks it became evident that the VARs weren't exactly playing by the rules set out by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Even proponents of VAR were left wondering why calls that weren't clearly wrong were suddenly being reviewed.
In late October, the bi-weekly German publication kicker revealed why: Prior to Matchday 6, the head of the German football association's (DFB) refereeing committee, Lutz Michael Fröhlich, had instructed the VARs to contact the on-field officials anytime they thought he or she may have got it wrong. To add to the confusion, the clubs weren't informed of the change until weeks later.
Predictably, there was a sharp increase in the number of plays being reviewed by the VARs as they strived for perfection on calls that could have gone either way. This led to much consternation among the fans, coaches and players, who thinking a close call had gone their way, suddenly saw it reversed for no good reason. It also led to some long delays – something the opponents of video review had warned us about for years.
Read more — Opinion: VAR merely prolongs the injustice
DFB President Reinhard Grindel responded by first denying any prior knowledge of a change in the modus operandi of VAR. Then he announced he had ordered the officials to use the system the way the IFAB had originally intended it to be used. And what do you know, the number of VAR-related controversies dropped sharply.
Make no mistake, VAR is here to stay.
"Nowadays, many fans in the stands have a smartphone. They can see, very quickly, if a referee has made a mistake. The only guy who can't see is the ref himself," argues Hellmut Krug, who was let go as the project's coordinator following an accusation of him having improperly influenced decisions (something he has denied). "It would be very backward of us not to provide referees with some outside assistance."
It's an assessment that is difficult to counter — provided the IFAB rules are strictly followed — but problems remain. Lutz Michael Fröhlich, who is also a former FIFA referee, recently said in an interview with German broadcaster Sky that while they have accepted that VAR should only come into play when a decision is clearly wrong, there's still little consensus on what actually constitutes a clearly wrong call.
An American solution?
Borussia Mönchengladbach's Dieter Hecking feels a more American approach would be beneficial, one in which new things are tested live and optimized. Germans, he argues, tend to demand that things are perfect from the start.
The Bundesliga still has some way to go when it comes to optimizing VAR, but it does seem to have made the game fairer.
While no official statistics for the first half of the season have been released, Sky has compiled its own numbers. Twenty-three wrong refereeing decisions stood up during the first 17 matchdays. The average over the past five Bundesliga seasons, though, was more than double that (52). More than enough reason to stick with VAR, despite the warts.