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VAR: Should It Stay Or Should It Go?

With Jeonbuk turgidly winning their 3rd Classic title in the last four seasons, not a single Korean team making even the quarter finals of the Champions League, the FA Cup final, and the final game of the season finishing 0-0, it is fair to say that 2017 may be not be a year that Korean football fans will recall well in the future. But for some onlookers, 2017 will become an unforgettable year simply for the introduction of the much maligned Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. The system has created more criticism than praise and despite the plethora of problems it has had during it's test launch in Korea, the world wide push from FIFA may mean that it will become a fixture of Korean football and not just a half season wonder. Here, our Scott Whitelock, examines the failures of VAR in 2017 and suggests some ways that the system could be bettered. 
(Photo courtesy of http://stoo.asiae.co.kr/ne) 

Quite remarkably, one of the major deficiencies of the system was exposed in the very first VAR decision of the season, when Ulsan Hyundai were denied a goal against Suwon Bluewings. On that instance, Lee Jong-ho had scored a well taken header but after reviewing the video for a full five minutes, the referee decided to bring play back to the halfway line for a foul that had been committed by an Ulsan player. Not only was it debatable if that challenge was actually a foul, but a full seven minutes had elapsed from the moment Ulsan scored to the point where the referee signaled that an infringement had been committed on the halfway line. The length of time required to make decisions using VAR has exposed a very significant flaw in the system.

Football is a unique game that has less breaks in play than most other sports and that fluidity, for many people, is the real beauty of the game and it should be treated and protected with sanctity. As I can assure you (as I was in attendance at the aforementioned game) it is no fun to sit in a silent stadium for seven minutes of inactivity, halfway through an important league game, and then have no idea what has happened when the referee finally makes his decision. There is no video replay provided for the spectators in the stadium and not even as much as a simple tannoy announcement to inform the paying public exactly what has happened. That type of situation is probably not what the creators of the game ever envisaged and it is exactly the type of situation that can suck all the passion out of a game that is famed for it's aggression, desire and meaning.

The way referees interpret the guidelines surrounding the use of VAR has also become a problem in the K League and there have been instances where referees have shown that they do not even have a basic understanding of the rules of VAR. One such incident occurred in the game between Jeonbuk Hyundai and Daegu in late September. A quickly taken goal kick allowed Daegu to mount a counter attack and some superb passing play allowed the visitors to take an unlikely lead. After consulting with the VAR the referee bizarrely opted to check the goal using video replay, despite there being no clear fouls or infringements in the buildup to the goal. The referee subsequently decided to overrule the goal and bring the ball back for a goal kick as he had deemed that the ball was rolling when the goalkeeper had originally taken the goal kick leading to Daegu's counter attack. However, the International Football Association Board's (the governing body that oversees VAR) guidelines on the use of VAR state that no review of a goal scored should include the restart which began the attack, a point which Daegu raised on their official Instagram account.

(Image: Daegu point out the referee's mistakes when misusing VAR to dissalow them a goal. Image courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/daegufc.co.kr/)

VAR has been introduced into football with the remit of limiting game altering decisions that were clearly wrong; in short, it's purpose is to eliminate blatantly wrong decisions being made by the referee. However, in Korea, VAR is not being used with that remit in mind and referees are often excessively misusing the system to protect themselves.

For anybody that is yet to see VAR in action, the referee on the field is in constant contact with a video referee who is based offsite. It is the video referee's responsibility to monitor the game, with the use of replays, and alert the on field referee of any incidents that they may have been missed, and they can then review the video themselves. In theory, it is a system that could work. But when the referee is asking for help on simple matters such as minor penalty incidents, whether or not a corner should be awarded, and even, which team should have possession from a throw-in, the system becomes diluted, complicated and completely clouds the simple remit that it has. Not only does it destroy that simple remit, it, again, disrupts the fluency of the game that is so fundamental to the football experience.

This excessive misuse of replays has not only come from the on field referee though and on a number of occasions the video referee has exerted too much power over games. Suwon Bluewings were denied their place in the final of the FA Cup courtesy of one such incident like that when the video referee decided they had spotted what not many other people had, or even still can, when he alerted the referee to what he deemed a push on a Busan IPark defender in the build up to Johnathan's 119th minute winning goal. Television replays offered no conclusive proof that there was a foul and the on field referee had not seen anything despite only being 10 yards away from the action. Yet the VAR took it upon himself to assess that an infringement had been committed and the goal was chalked off.

Instances like that were much more common than could have been imagined when the system was introduced in July and the video referees grew in power as the season went on and they especially exerted their influence over the on field referee. The use of video to assess tackles and challenges became more common place towards the end of the season as a flurry of video assisted red cards came along. Incheon lost a number of players for 'elbowing' incidents, while Suwon and Ulsan were handed unfair red cards for what were tough, but not dangerous tackles.

So if these are the problems what exactly are the solutions and how can the K League improve their use of VAR? Unfortunately, in it's current format, there may be no way to improve VAR and it it may well continue to create new problems and dramas. The difficulty with the system at the moment, as has already been mentioned, is that it has strayed from it's simple remit of preventing "clear and obvious errors" and has touched upon other areas of the game too much. Further to that though, is that the VAR is still person and is still making a subjective decision on events that will polarize, thus doing nothing to avoid the controversy that the system is designed to stop. Unlike the use of goal line technology, for cases of red cards or fouls, when using the VAR system, the lines are not always clear and there is still room for mistakes when officiating on subjective decisions. Until these flaws are identified and resolved by the world governing bodies it may well be wise to only use VAR for clear and simple decisions, such as whether the ball is out of play, whether a foul was committed in or outside of the penalty area and for the use of adjudicating offside decisions. These are black and white decisions and the use of video could dramatically improve the game without causing the controversy that we have become acclimatized to in Korea regarding VAR.

Last season the Kleague spent $3.1 million to implement VAR whilst paying referees a depressingly low annual income of only $40,160. With pay for referees so low, in comparison to most developed football leagues, it can be no surprise that the standard of refereeing in the county is so low. Added to that, the referees reportedly receive little and poor quality training and if a limited form of VAR was to be implemented than perhaps there would be more funds available for improved referee remuneration and training. And maybe the money destined for VAR could be used to improve the Kleague marketing system which is dramatically failing to attract new and old supporters, alike, to come to the stadiums.

Having said that, referees do have a very difficult job and, at times, that job is made more difficult by the behavior of certain players in the league. It is a lazy stereotype to make, but Korean society is ultra competitive and a Korean person's will to win is pervasive in every aspect of their life. And that stereotype extends into football and goes someway to explaining the intense amount of gamesmanship that occurs in the Kleague. Players constantly dive and feign injury on a level that is not seen outside of Asian leagues and when a player is rolling around on the floor, clutching their ankle like it has been broken in half, it is no wonder that the use of VAR to review tackles has become out of control. Teams bombarding the referee with requests to check VAR has also been commonplace and if VAR is to be taken seriously then new rules need to be introduced to give the referee more power to punish dissent and obvious attempts of gamesmanship.

In truth, I was not in favour of VAR before it was introduced and I am even less in favour of it now. Instead of eliminating clear mistakes it has created a cloud of confusion under which referees are drowning. VAR may only have it's toe through the door but if that door is left ajar then it may mean the end of football as we know it and love it.

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