Will VAR Ever be as Good as Hawkeye in Tennis?


- Grant Whittington

With VAR (Video Assistant Referee) now being trialed at various cup games across the country in the UK, you would think that the days of contentious decision making and controversial mistakes were about to be consigned to the past.

It’s fair to say that VAR has courted controversy of its own during its brief existence, however, while polarising opinion due to its lack of clarity and long-winded nature.

Still, many will argue that this is more about execution than the technology itself, as VAR remains a relatively new concept in the sport and one that officials will need to familiarise themselves with if it is to become a success.

In this post, we’ll ask whether VAR can ever be a success in football, and whether it has the raw potential to be as good as Hawkeye in tennis?

VAR – The Story so Far

After years of speculation and development, VAR has finally been implemented in this seasons’ FA Cup and League Cup. Despite its rich promise, however, it has been involved in a number of controversies during the last couple of months, while referees appear to be a little uncertain about how to utilise the technology now at their disposal.

A few key moments stand out, with one taking place during the recent, FA Cup 5th round tie between Huddersfield and Manchester United at the John Smiths stadium. Towards the end of the first half, Juan Mata collected a square Ashley Young pass before rounding the keeper and sliding home, seemingly sending United into a 2-0 lead.

While the Reds celebrated, however, referee Kevin Friend listened to his earpiece for some guidance from the VAR. Amid the ensuing confusion, it took around two minutes for the goal to be ruled out, while it appeared as though the lines used to determine whether or not Mata was standing in an offside when the ball was played were not straight. A spokesperson subsequently said that these lines were not used to make the decision, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement for the underlying technology.

Then there was the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield, which the Baggies won by 3-2. The first half was littered with several VAR decisions, with the Reds awarded a retrospective penalty and Albion’s third goal allowed to stand after an interminable period of waiting. This caused significant delays to an otherwise thrilling half of football, while it appeared as though the officials were unsure of how to fully leverage VAR to their advantage.

This is indicative of what we have seen so far, with referees and their assistants applying the technology inconsistently. While the game at Anfield featured a number of referrals to the VAR, for example, we saw video official Mike Jones fail to review an incident when Willian was seemingly fouled by Timm Klose in the penalty area during Chelsea’s cup tie with Norwich at Stamford Bridge. So, while some seem overly keen to apply VAR technology, others seem loathe to bring this into play in the heat of battle.

The Future for VAR – Will it Ever be as Good as Hawkeye?

While these issues and inconsistencies have caused some to write off VAR, they have a great deal to do with the understanding of officials and how they are encouraged to apply the technology. The current rules dictate that VAR should not come into play unless a “clear and obvious” mistake has been made, and although offers some form of clarity it is still open to individual interpretation.

As the technology evolves and its use is clarified further, however, we should see it applied on a far more consistent basis. Clearly, human error and judgement is the biggest issue here, and this can only be eradicated with patience and over a sustained period of time.

In truth, however, it’s doubtful that VAR will ever achieve the accuracy of the Hawkeye system that is used in tennis and cricket. The reason for this is that these systems are fully automated and only called upon to make simple, linear decisions, such as determining which side of the line a ball has landed on and tracking the flight of a delivery.

In the case of penalty claims, offsides and VAR, human judgement must also be applied to inform referees and make final decisions, and this makes it more likely that officials will make mistakes (or at least impart contentious judgements).

This part of the process will also extend the time taken to arrive at decisions, and for these reasons we should manage our expectations of VAR and be patient while it becomes a fundamental part of the game.

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