There are some subtle differences between Euro 2020’s VAR centre in Nyon and the Premier League’s VAR hub at Stockley Park, beyond the fact that one sits on the banks of Lake Geneva and the other overlooks the M4.
You might have noticed one on Wednesday evening when Karim Benzema swept in France’s second goal against Portugal and began to celebrate, only to see the flag go up. Benzema huffed. The linesman shrugged. The crowd booed. But 29 seconds after the ball had touched the net, a video assistant’s voice crackled through to the referee’s earpiece and the goal was awarded.
This process would have lasted much longer in last season’s Premier League, while gently boiling the blood of a co-commentator somewhere, and it is one of the reasons VAR has, by and large, been so smooth at Euro 2020 so far. The key in this case was an additional official at Uefa’s headquarters charged solely with deliberating offsides, unlike at Stockley Park. There have been one or two frustrations with the reluctance of assistants to raise their flag even in the most obvious circumstances – Jermaine Jenas scolded them for “wasting our time” in one such instance this week – but VAR’s offside interventions from Nyon have been swift and decisive and that is largely because Uefa has a dedicated official with their eyes along the line.
It also helps that Uefa was able to select 22 officials specifically for video duties. This one team is focused solely on delivering consistent judgements to the pitch from their two secure VAR rooms at Uefa’s headquarters, rather than the more holistic approach of most domestic leagues where referees rotate between on-field duties, their VAR hub and the role of touchline official.
The broader outlines are not especially new – VAR was deployed in a similar way during the 2018 World Cup to far less acclaim, with Alan Shearer among many pundits to brand the system a “farce” at the time. But on reflection much of the controversy in Russia stemmed from inconsistencies particularly around potential red cards, with the two-footed lunges of Spain’s Gerard Pique and Croatia’s Ante Rebic both escaping the notice of referees and, somehow, VAR.
Avoiding these inconsistencies has been key. All of Uefa’s chosen officials travelled to Istanbul for four days in May where they discussed rules over kofta, and the result was a united front. Nyon’s approach has been to swiftly dismiss anything debatable in order to get the game moving. The nuances of handball were discussed in detail in Istanbul after causing chaos across Europe this season. And where there has been serious doubt about a major decision in the tournament, VAR officials have consistently directed the on-field referee to their pitchside monitors.
This, Uefa feels, has been a two-way street. While VAR has operated smoothly and reliably from the background, the officials have felt emboldened to take charge on the pitch, safe in the knowledge that they have adequate support watching on. The quality of officiating has directly benefitted from the confidence in VAR, with the most significant mistake so far perhaps when Spanish referee Carlos del Cerro Grande awarded a penalty to Czech Republic when the flailing arm of Croatia’s Dejan Lovren caught Patrik Schick in the face. Even then, it was in part influenced by Uefa’s strict interpretation of the rule rather than an error of VAR.
The Premier League is not planning to introduce major changes like a dedicated offside official but it is watching on closely. It has two officiating teams at the tournament who will return with notes for Mike Riley and the referees’ body. At times last season Stockley Park became a lightning rod for the derision of pundits, ironically in part because it opened itself up for scrutiny with broadcasters able to see and hear the VAR’s every move. This is another significant difference where in Nyon everything goes on behind closed doors. Aghast Premier League commentators could often be heard saying “Why are they checking that?” when in reality every decision gets checked, however small.
There have still been some of VAR’s flaws on show at the Euros, of course. Kylian Mbappe scored a majestic goal against Germany when he shimmied before whipping the ball in off the far post with a flick of his boot, but it was belatedly ruled offside. To see such an aesthetically pleasing goal chalked off for a long-gone marginal offside felt like something had been given to us and taken away. And goals like Benzema’s lack some emotion: it may only have been 29 seconds, but there is little more underwhelming in football than a goal awarded while the players are preparing for a defensive free-kick. Then again, the officials were as swift as they could be in the circumstances and the overall impression so far is that VAR has helped reach the right calls while staying firmly in the background.
The Premier League has high hopes for a similar outcome as it approaches a second season older and wiser. It has already decided on one change, introducing fatter offside lines to give some leeway to strikers in the most marginal calls. And it is not just the rulemakers who might take something from all this. When a contentious decision brings up the familiar nuanced take of “just get rid of VAR” from fans and pundits next season, it is worth remembering that it is the implementation which merits our scepticism rather than the entire concept of technology in sport.
Uefa doesn’t always get things right and quite often it gets things painfully wrong. But remarkably, so far, VAR isn’t one of them.