It is perhaps unfair to single out Manchester City (City) as the only team to gain an advantage from officiating decisions, but once again this weekend they have been beneficiaries of a perplexing decision by Video assistant referee (VAR), at a critical juncture of a match, that affected the course of the game. So whilst this article isn’t about City, they have the additional criticism / scrutiny coming.
I’ve already written two articles about VAR and since then it appears little has changed by way of improvement. We still have 4 officials and VAR calling basic decisions incorrectly. There are genuine moments in a game that are 50/50 – Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dyke’s red card against Newcastle a good example: a case for and against a red card could be made, but neither conclusion could be disputed as clearly incorrect. That was not true of Alexis Mac Allister’s red card. That was not true of Onana’s clear foul on his Premier League debut. That was not true of City’s offside goal yesterday. Which begs the question, with so many officials and so much technology available, how can decisions still be so wrong?
This is tinfoil hat time, I do not have evidence for the opinions and conclusions I am going to outline, but I will at least try to make a case for why they are plausible. A contention some have suggested is corruption. Referees are in league with the most successful clubs, and are either fans, sympathetic to their whims, are pressured by higher powers, or are financially rewarded for favourable decisions. All sound outlandish but hear me out.
Referees are fans.
Whilst the most unlikely there are surely pertinent questions about impartiality to be addressed when you see officials overseeing games between teams they live within a 10km radius of. Whether or not this is a factor is irrelevant, surely a governing body would want to completely eliminate even a slim possibility of such a thing. Instead they are either blind to it, openly accept it and do not care, or are so incompetent that they cannot get even this most basic expectation implemented correctly. It’s a woeful indictment whatever the truth may be.
Referees are sympathetic to big clubs whims.
The obvious question is ‘why’? And the obvious answer to me is money. Top teams bring in the most publicity, the most revenue, the most fans, and are the most recognised globally. If we see this from a corporate perspective then these teams are the most important to the brand that is Premier League. Whilst it is important to maintain the integrity of the competition, for images sake if nothing else, it would not be a surprise if motivations for big teams to do well both existed, and were encouraged, via officiating. This is a stretch, admittedly, and definitely starts entering conspiracy theory territory. However, football, and in particular the Premier League, are awash with money from some of the richest, most powerful people on the planet, and these often tend to coalesce at the very top clubs. As has been seen in both the Italian and Spanish leagues attempts to influence referees, and essentially cheat, go to the very top of the ladder. Is the Premier League that squeaky clean?
Referees are pressured by higher powers.
The FA is an old boys club, an institution if you will. The PMGOL is a self-regulating refereeing body – and for the record any organisation tasked with policing itself invariably opens the doors to bias and corruption – with its current head Howard Webb. Howard Webb! If we were being generous you would have to say that this set up is not designed for optimal refereeing performance. But who’s putting the pressure on? That is more difficult to answer, but for those who think it simply isn’t possible, see the influence Alex Ferguson had on officiating in his pomp, and then tell me there isn’t any possibility of pressure being put onto officials.
Referees are bribed.
They are officiating a multi-billion pound sport whilst earning, at the top end, £70,000 p.a. Do you honestly think they are not corruptible for the right price? Now there is no evidence for this, but I think it is rather naive to think it isn’t possible. We have seen corruption scandals engulf other leagues and large clubs, clubs you might of thought did not need to use such methods. Money and power rarely exist without a dark undercurrent, and with how things are set up officials are absolutely ripe for the taking. I wouldn’t necessarily blame them if they did succumb to such offers, they are only human after all. I know some people have faith in the game, it’s integrity and honor, but if you look closely things aren’t as rosy as they appear and, from TUE’s to FFP, there are some shady practices that are widely accepted without question. Do not think officials immune to this world.
Back to Reality.
OK so the tinfoil hat is back in its box, let’s jump back to reality and back to VAR – what is wrong? Officials are erratic, inconsistent, seemingly lack clarity or common sense in their decision making, and seem to hide behind each other rather than addressing the flaws. So it isn’t VAR so much as the people using it, right? Sort of.
Mike Dean’s reveal in the tabloids about not asking an on-field official to review a stonewall red card to avoid giving him “more grief” is as shocking as it is telling. Officials are not adjudging incidents in isolation, they are taking into account how difficult a game has been, how much grief a fellow official has got, the potential ramifications of a decision on said official, basically anything but the merits of the incident itself. And this is only what Mike Dean admitted to – what other factors do you think are at play that have not been mentioned? How much an official likes or dislikes a player / team / manager? How hostile a crowd is? How much (until this season at least) a player gets in there face? Decisions are clearly not being made based on a period of action alone, and that explains why inconsistency is still so prevalent.
VAR the machine.
The people not the technology, right? Yes, but I do think limitations of the technology, as well as how it’s used, need addressing. Yesterday in the Arsenal – Manchester United game a penalty was awarded, and then overturned, for a ‘foul’ on Havertz. A picture perfect example of the benefits of VAR and how successful it can be. In the 87th minute Garnacho raced away to score, only to be denied via VAR due to offside. How far was he offside? I’m going to say millimeters at most – to my eye he looked on – to VAR with its lines and it’s measurements a hair’s breadth was enough. This is a bad use of VAR and has been a continual bad use of it since it’s inception. When they choose the draw a line, how parallel they choose to draw it, where they measure the players from, all affect it and it seems like a crap shoot every time it’s close. VAR is over complicating what should be simple. If you asked officials to review the offside, without lines, based purely on what their eyes could see, it would of been a unanimous decision: goal. That isn’t the issue though, consistency is the buzzword, so how to achieve it?
Improving VAR Again.
I made suggestions in the last article I wrote a long time ago, virtually none have happened except for one: players/ managers harassing officials. It was something I thought set a terrible precedent and something that, if cracked down on, would improve officiating. The cracking down on it has happened and, whilst officiating is still awful I’m hopeful it will lead to gradual improvement. But what else is there, do we accept an imperfect (I’d argue severely broken) system, or can further improvements be made? These are my suggestions:
1) Officials being mic’ed up.
What does this do? It explains the decision making process and, even if fans disagree, they can at least connect the dots as to why the decision was reached. I think it would reduce the frustration for fans, and would make the whole process more transparent.
2) Scrap VAR for anything but clear offsides.
If there’s daylight between the players involved VAR intervenes, if not the on-field officials decision is final. Will there still be controversy? Probably, but it stops this absurd drawing of lines that keeps robbing teams of legitimate goals – advantage to the attackers and all that.
3) Accountability and incentives.
This is tough one to implement, but if a referee has a good game and/ or uses VAR effectively he gets a monetary bonus. If he has a shocker he faces demotion and reduced amount of time officiating. Make it in their interest to reach the correct decision, as opposed to the most convenient one.
4) Independent oversight.
The PMGOL being a closed shop, and being lead by former referees, is not the way to get the best officials making the best decisions. It needs a radical overhaul. Will it happen? Very doubtful. But this is a discussion about how to fix a problem, not the likelihood of a fix being implemented.
My interest in football has been dwindling at an ever increasing rate, and VAR and the furore surrounding it has been a big factor. Officials should, if doing there job properly, be pretty much anonymous, so it speaks volumes that we know all of their names. Like many things in football the abysmal officiating standards seem to be somewhat swept under the carpet and allowed to pervade, and whether it’s the tribalism or the escapism, most fans just grumble and complain but, ultimately, shrug their shoulders and carry on. I think an investigation into officials and officiating practices would be invaluable, but it likely opens a lot of doors powerful people would like to keep closed, so the reality is we see standards continue to crumble and just hope the next big gaff doesn’t happen to our team. A bleak and depressing conclusion I admit, but as the saying goes “where there’s a will there’s a way” – there is no will from anybody in the relevant organisations to address this problem, and so the only reasonable expectation is for it to continue. Or for Mike Dean to admit he is a massive Spurs fan and that that fact weighed on every officiating decision he ever made. I live in hope.
Note: forgive any typos, structural issues, ramblings, etc this was written on my phone, was not edited, and just basically from brain to screen. I hope it is a fun read and sparks discussion and debate.
Written by Seano_ September 04 2023 10:16:57