Last week, after some particularly appalling examples of the use and misuse of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system in a weekend of Premier League football matches I questioned whether the technology which was introduced to make the game more fair was, in fact, spoiling it for players and spectators alike (see Be Careful What You Wish For: Is Video Technology Ruining Sport?, https://www.sdwriting.org/p/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-is-video.html).
The latest round of Premier League games has not only done more to suggest that the answer to that question is ‘Yes’, it has also highlighted that the inconsistencies in refereeing which were another reason why many called for the introduction of technology are still very much with us. And as VAR continues to overrule the referee on the pitch, this will only get worse. This in itself is ridiculous. It clearly states in the Rules of the Game that ‘the referee’s decision is final’, meaning the decision of the referee on the pitch, not the one sitting in a video studio in Stockley Park, a couple of miles north of Heathrow.
(Indeed, one begins to wonder whether the location of the Video Assistant Referee is not coincidental: if it gets much worse, he or she may wish to hop on a ‘plane and flee before the fans who were at the match and left in the dark as to why these often bizarre decisions are being made can reach Stockley Park.)
Martin Atkinson is an experienced referee. And yet it would not surprise me to hear in the near future that he has decided to hang up his whistle. At the Emirates Stadium on Sunday 27 October he was made to look foolish by the VAR, firstly by being overruled to give a penalty and rescind a yellow card for diving; and then for obeying VAR and disallowing a perfectly good goal which could have won the game for Arsenal.
According to the pundits on the BBC’s Match of the Day 2 programme – MoTD2 – on Sunday 3 November, the previous day Mr Atkinson had been on the other end of the VAR system for the Aston Villa V Liverpool match, and overruled the pitch referee by disallowing a Liverpool ‘goal’ for an offside decision which, when analysed, only he could see. Everyone else appears to have been baffled by the decision. On the 3rd, Mr Atkinson was the on-pitch referee for the Everton V Tottenham match; and was made to look foolish once again by the VAR, Anthony Taylor.
The MoTD2 pundits pointed out that Mr Taylor, sitting (comfortably, one assumes) in his cubicle in Stockley Park, ruled once against giving a penalty to Tottenham; and twice against giving a penalty to Everton, the first for a foul by a Tottenham player, the second for a handball in the penalty area. And whilst the decision not to award Tottenham a penalty was correct, each of the decisions not to award the Everton penalties appeared to be wrong. They both should have been given as penalties. Furthermore, VAR simply highlighted Mr Atkinson’s inconsistency – a point missed by the MoTD2 pundits.
As the decision not to award Tottenham a penalty was upheld, Mr Atkinson should have given Son a yellow card for diving – as he had originally done for Wilfried Zaha in the Arsenal V Crystal Palace game. If he thought one was a dive, why not book Son for a clear (and theatrical) dive? That penalty decision at the Emirates came back to haunt Mr Atkinson again at Goodison Park. The first penalty he refused to give Everton was almost a carbon copy of the one he did eventually award to Crystal Palace at the Emirates, with the attacker falling over a leg clumsily stuck out by the defender.
Far from helping referees, VAR is more and more undermining them and making them look foolish. The question repeatedly being asked is: why doesn’t the on-pitch referee go and look at the monitor at the side of the pitch, as they do across the Continent? Not only would he or she then be able to have a proper discussion with the Video Assistant Referee, they would also retain their right – as the Rules state – to be the ultimate arbiter in the game. That rule is simply not being applied, turning the game into a farce; or to use a term now creeping in, Premier League football is becoming VARcical.