'The referees are not the referees. Video refs make the big decisions' - Jose Mourinho's verdict on VAR
The Tottenham boss was fuming, but how does the new system work outside the Premier League?
Football has a new breed of imposter, according to Jose Mourinho. “The referees,” he announced on the first day of 2020, “are not the referees. Video referees are the ones that make the big decisions.”
Because of recent pauses in his career, Mourinho had never worked in a league where the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was active - until he joined Tottenham Hotspur as manager six weeks ago. His verdict, after nine games of Premier League-style VAR, is crushing.
After Spurs lost at Southampton, having had a penalty claim ignored by the match official and passed over by the on-screen referee at VAR’s Stockley Park headquarters, Mourinho fumed: “In this moment the referees are not the referees. The VAR should change their name because ‘video assistant referee’ - that’s not true. It should be VR, video referees, because they are the referees. It is strange, because you see the referees on the pitch and they are not the referees, they are the assistant referees. The other guys, they are the ones that make the big decisions in the game.”
Mourinho wanted VAR to be more decisive at Southampton. Others want less of it. Some, like Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, says the assumption that goals will be reviewed has changed his touchline behaviour, stifled the celebrations of one of the most animated coaches in the game. Week after week, its impact is colossal, and as English football wonders if it might all settle down, it should take a warning from leagues that have had VAR in their lives for longer, and know that adjusting to it will be a long process.
The Premier League came late to VAR, and, being the Premier League, almost immediately declared its exceptionalism, saying it would treat VAR its own way. English referees on the field and in front of the banks of TV monitors would be less fastidious about handball guidelines. Those on the field would be discouraged from too much direct consulting of pitchside screens.
But VAR has not crept quietly into the matchday experience. The Premier League’s audit in November concluded that VAR had cut in half the number of refereeing errors in what they label ‘Key Match Incidents’ compared to the same stage of last season: down to 24 errors from 47. But the complaints stacked up: about the lack of clear communication of VAR’s processes to supporters inside stadiums; about long delays between a review being called and a decision being reached; about the imperceptibly fine margins that apply to offside calls and whether the graphic technology used for those decisions is sufficiently sophisticated.
The effect of VAR? A rough calculation based on this season’s match-shaping VAR decisions on goals suggests that, say, Liverpool’s lead in the table might be as much as twice as big as it would have been under a VAR-free regime. Without VAR, West Ham United could have been five points clearer of the relegation zone than they were when manager Manuel Pellegrini was sacked. And the chant “V-A-R, V-A-R!”, now sung by fans at all stadiums when a decision goes with their team, would never have come on to the songsheet.
On La Liga’s last matchday of 2019, supporters of Real Madrid staged a shrill protest. As soon as the regulations around VAR were announced over the PA, as they have been at every Spanish top-flight game for the last 18 months, the Bernabeu crowd united in a piercing whistle. VAR is now Madrid’s declared enemy, animosity having peaked because of the perception VAR went missing for two possible penalties for Madrid during last month’s 0-0 draw at Barcelona.
Camp Nou is not exactly cheerleading the technology, either. “I’m in no doubt that VAR will go on causing controversy because that’s something that seems to unite football,” sighed Ernest Valverde, the Barcelona head coach. His club’s president, Josep Bartomeu wrote formally to the Spanish FA in December to complain about the arbitrary use of VAR, incensed by a Barca ‘penalty’ that was not given by the referee or considered by VAR in a 2-2 draw against Real Sociedad. “We have to expect the same criteria and commitment from all the officials,” Bartomeu explained, “or the integrity of the competition is compromised.”
The governors of the game in Spain have a full mailbox this new year. A number of clubs are lobbying behind the idea they should be able to listen to and review dialogue between on-the-pitch referees and the VAR.
In the country with the greatest appetite for scrutinising and debating refereeing decisions, VAR should be a boon. Sometimes it seems to be - though only because it creates an even greater forum for amplified disputes and airing of conspiracy theories across the Italian media.
In November, Serie A coaches and captains met with Italy’s head of referees, Nicola Rizzoli, to thrash out issues around VAR. Carlo Ancelotti, then coaching Napoli, was a vocal critic of one aspect of it, arguing that the authority of on-field referees has been diminished with the introduction of the technology.
“It comes down to one problem,” said Ancelotti, echoing Mourinho’s observations at Southampton. “Who knows who’s refereeing games? Because from time to time, you end up thinking certain games are being officiated by VAR. I know that if [Gianluca] Rocchi or [Daniele] Orsato [respected Italian referees] are there, on the pitch, it will be them in charge, but with younger ones, less so.” The danger, he believes, is that “on-field referees will not mature if they are not refereeing the game from the field.”
Rizzoli admitted that there is evidence of a possible increase in VAR-dependence. The number of interventions is up. He noted that, in the first third of the 2019-20 Serie season, major VAR overrules were taking place “once every two games, up from one-in-four last season. It means we are not refereeing well enough.”
The Bundesliga came early to VAR, introduced for the 2017-18 season. It would be a troubled adolescence for the game’s new invention. Within its first six months, it stood accused not only of failing to reduce refereeing errors but being open to manipulation. The man put in charge of supervising the German project, the former Fifa referee Hellmut Krug, was stood down from his position after several controversial calls and amid accusations that he had exceeded his authority by intervening himself in individual VAR decisions, including a number that went in favour of his home town club, Schalke 04.
Two and half years on, the use of VAR ignites debate on most Bundesliga weekends, although as Liverpool’s German manager Klopp observes, time has smoothed some of its rough edges. It still shaped major events in 2019: Bayern Munich, Double-winners last season, won their Cup semi-final only thanks to a late, soft penalty that left their beaten opponents Werder Bremen angered that VAR had not intervened to correct a ‘clear and obvious’ error in awarding the spot-kick.
And it would be unwise to suggest to Mario Gomez, the veteran Germany striker, that its benefits outweigh its flaws. “It’s bulls**t,” seethed 34-year-old Gomez last month after having his fifth ‘goal’ in three games ruled out by VAR. “I am glad I won’t be around for another five years of it. It has taken the fun away from the game.”
Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, is a declared VAR sceptic and is lobbying for, among things, a small margin of error - perhaps 15cm, in favour of attacking players - to be built-in to VAR’s famously rigid offside calls. His predecessor, Michel Platini, never liked the idea of VAR. Platini came out of hiding last month to declare it “a right mess but one that, unfortunately, we’ll never step back from.”
The average number of VAR interventions per Champions League game tends to be slightly fewer than the average in many major domestic leagues, suggesting that the more experienced and expert the on-field referee - Uefa get to pick their referees from the best of all their member nations - the less likely the need for referral to, or correction from, the TV bunker. But some very big decisions involved VAR during the climax to last season’s Champions League, notably the penalties for handball in favour of Liverpool, just seconds into their final against Spurs, and for Manchester United in their last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain.
This season, VAR decisions based on incidents early in a phase of play that then overruled an on-field referee’s call of an incident later on have been conspicuous. Real Madrid escaped, thanks to a minor, earlier foul at the other end of the pitch, conceding a penalty and having goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois sent off against PSG. At Slavia Prague, Internazionale thought they had taken a 2-0 lead until VAR looked at it, and not only cancelled the Inter goal but awarded Slavia a penalty at the other end.
Updated: January 2, 2020 05:10 PM