The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) burst onto the world stage this summer as the World Cup gave the technology its first outing in a major international tournament. VAR had already made an impression on Europe, having been introduced to Serie A and the Bundesliga in the 2017/18 season, while La Liga and Ligue 1 began its use in the summer.
While French fans were mostly satisfied with its use in Russia (ultimately it helped Les Bleus on their way to their second World Cup), it remained to be seen how it would be received on a domestic level.
The technology was tested immediately as Marseille hosted Toulouse in the season opener. A cross from the right hand side was turned behind for a corner by Kelvin Amian, with little appeal from the home players for an infraction. However, the video assistants spotted a hand ball from the Toulouse defender and the referee awarded the first VAR aided penalty in Ligue 1 within just 45 minutes, much to the delight of the Stade Vélodrome.
Despite its initial triumph, video technology did not immediately become the roaring success that it might have been, providing us with several controversial moments already in its debut season.
Just three weeks in, referee Thomas Leonard and his team received widespread criticism following a match between Saint-Étienne and Amiens, when the officials failed to review multiple penalty claims for Les Verts. During the encounter, home fans began to chant about their displeasure at the technology and several players echoed their disappointment in post match interviews.
In late September, a technological malfunction meant that Rennes and Toulouse had to play the majority of a match without VAR. A second half penalty was then controversially awarded for a foul on Mbaye Niang, which the Senegalese converted. Once again, the referee in question was Leonard, who had no option to review the tackle. Nevertheless, Toulouse defender Christophe Jullien stated to RMC that “since the beginning of the season, VAR has been against us”.
Arguably the highest profile error in relation to VAR has been a failure to use it when available. In Le Classique, pitting Paris Saint Germain against Olympique de Marseille, the south coast side saw a late equaliser ruled out for a foul by new arrival Kevin Strootman on Marquinhos. On review, television showed that the decision was a harsh one, and that perhaps the referee could have allowed play to continue and revert back to the foul if deemed necessary by his assistants.
Taking a more analytical perspective, we can look at refereeing statistics and how they differ compared with years gone by. In the 2017/18 season, the average rate of red cards per game was 0.23. This campaign, however, the rate has slightly increased to 0.26, not a significant jump. Similarly, penalties awarded per game reached 0.34 last season, and a gentle increase has been noted this year so far, too, currently at 0.39, per WhoScored. This increase is subtle enough to suggest that the video assistance is aiding referees in making key decisions, but not influencing the game beyond the desired level.
Despite the rocky start by VAR, and the high profile errors, it seems that the French public are broadly satisfied with it. Le Parisien reports that, as of September, 90% of people interviewed responded positively to VAR and agreed that it “avoids errors and reinforces the credibility of referees”. When players and managers speak out against it, it is easy to forget that they are in the heat of the moment and on a wider scale, it does improve decision making.
It seems certain that VAR will continue to integrate itself into football. 2018 has seen the writing of the Video Assistant Referee into the official laws of the game, and further use of it seems ever likely. If this increased use can help finetune the system to avoid technological errors and minimise delays, it will certainly be a positive. Having seen its effect on the first half of Ligue 1 this season, it has had its controversial moments, but it appears that these were mere teething issues, and it can continue to be a success.