VAR Controversial Calls: ‘Significant Human Error’ or ‘Sheer Incompetence’?

One of the most clickbait-worthy headlines and titles – in sports – on Google and YouTube has something like ‘Top Ten Robberies in Football…’ in it. While it probably is clickbait, it is also undeniable that some clubs have been robbed in historical matches due to controversial calls by the referee/linesman. After decades of these inconsistencies, football enthusiasts became hopeful for fairer games when the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology was introduced. It took a lot of trials on novelty and friendly competitions for European football to finally incorporate the VAR system into matches.

Bundesliga and Serie A started using the VAR system at the beginning of the 2017/2018 season, and La Liga joined the party at the beginning of the following season. As expected, officiating became a lot fairer. If you’ve so far been struggling to make sense of what VAR is and its use, the video assistant referee is an off-the-pitch match official who assists the on-field referee in decision-making with the help of video footage. The VAR has an assistant who communicates the decisions to the broadcasters. The aim is to help the on-field referee make correct decisions when he didn’t clearly see what happened on the field. Decisions like goal/no goal, penalty/no penalty, direct red cards, overturning of yellow cards, etc., can be reviewed with the help of the video footage.

Since VAR was implemented in European football, viewers get to watch the footage/replay on their screens as they review the decisions. Despite the ease that comes with the innovation, we have noticed so many wrong calls in matches that cause players to be wrongly carded, a team to be denied a deserving penalty, or, most annoyingly, denied a worthy goal due to offside/no offside calls. While we understand the referee’s discretion is final, some obvious wrong calls have been made, and the VAR/officiating group had to apologize after the match, labeling the decision as significant human error. The question is, are they really significant human errors? Or just inconsistencies/incompetence?

Michael Oliver reviewing a footage from the pitchside monitor. Source: Sky Sports

Here are a few cases in the Premier League where the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) group, the people who officiate all Premier League matches, apologized after making a wrong call during a match:

Tottenham 2 – 1 Liverpool (September 2023)
For some reason, this is arguably the biggest VAR error in a while. The match was going smoothly up until the 26th minute when Curtis Jones got a red card after the referee was called over to the VAR monitor to have another look at a foul on Bissouma. Eight minutes later, Salah laid a pass to Diaz, who beat Vicario with a low shot across goal, but the offside flag went up, and it was canceled. Two minutes later, Son put Tottenham ahead by one goal, and the match ended 2 – 1 in favour of Tottenham. Diaz was clearly onside, but VAR failed to intervene.

PGMOL released a statement after the match that implied that the on-field match officials made the error and should have been a goal, but VAR failed to intervene. Liverpool, understandably, finds the ‘human error’ excuse as unacceptable and have requested a replay.

Manchester United 1 – 0 Wolves (August 2023)
United’s goalie, Andre Onana, got away with one due to failed communication when VAR, Jonathan Moss, didn’t instruct the on-field referee to check the pitchside monitor for a potential foul by the goalie. After the match, Gary O’Neil told Sky Sports that Moss came out and apologised that a penalty should have been given. In his words, ‘it was a blatant penalty, and it should have been given.’

Tottenham 2 – 1 Brighton (April 2023)
This is another embarrassing case of apology from Howard Webb, PGMOL’s Chief, to De Zerbi’s side after denying them a penalty when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg fouled Kaoru Mitoma in the 18-yard box. When you look at the scoreline, these decisions may appear more painful to the victims.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Brentford (February 2023)
On 11th February 2023, Lee Mason, the on-field officiating minister, failed to spot Christian Norgaard in an offside position during a build-up to Ivan Toney’s equalizer. In a conversation with Daily Mail, a former referee, Chris Foy, said that the VAR didn’t fully investigate the lines and that if they did, the goal would have been disallowed due to offside. The Gunners might have walked away with three points but had to leave with a draw due to that ‘human error.’ A similar event happened that same weekend between Crystal Palace and Brighton, where Jon Brooks, on VAR duty, denied Estupinan’s goal by drawing an offside line in the wrong place when the fullback was clearly onside.

Nottingham Forest 2 – 2 Brentford (November 2022)
The match’s referee, Andre Marriner, was instructed to check the pitchside monitor to review Forest’s goalie, Dean Henderson, coming out to close down Yoane Wissa. Henderson got to the ball first, but Marriner went ahead to award a penalty against Forest. After the game, Forest’s manager, Steve Cooper, expressed his thoughts to the reporters. He said that if the referee was fine with giving that as a penalty, there should have been four penalties in that same game. From his account, inconsistency was obvious in the match.

It is noteworthy to mention that this doesn’t happen in the Premier League alone. On Sunday, 11th of September, 2022, Juventus were denied a last-minute winner against Salernitana due to a wrong offside call. In the extra minutes of the game, a corner was swung in towards the front post and Arkadiusk Milik got a chance, and headed the ball into the far corner. VAR reviewed the goal and claimed there was a final touch from an offside Bonucci. An unused angle in that match showed the last defender keeping Bonucci onside but the goal was disallowed for offside.

The correct angle that kept Bonucci on. Source: GOAL

These are just a few of the many errors that ended in PGMOL apologizing to the affected clubs. Some of these errors robbed clubs of deserved victories. The introduction of VAR was supposed to eliminate errors like these due to the lack of video footage to review and pitchside monitors to watch replays.

After the game against Tottenham, Liverpool boss, Jürgen Klopp notably said, “I never saw a more unfair game. For you it is funny. For me it is just expensive.” Clubs want and need improvements to stop the repetition of these horrendous “mistakes”. While some people think these are insignificant errors, it’s slowly ruining the beautiful game of football.

Peter Adeyemo.

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