The scourge of video reviews of subjective refereeing decisions has already infected soccer. The predominating viewpoint—mostly among soccer fans who haven’t seen how replay and inevitable replay-creep have poisoned American sports—on this unfortunate phenomenon has been that replay is good. But as officials in German’s Bundesliga are discovering during the league’s inaugural season of video replay, replay is actually terrible.
On Monday, German soccer’s governing body demoted Hellmut Krug, the Bundesliga’s Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system project manager. The official reason for the move relates to allegations of referee manipulation on Krug’s part, with Krug being specifically accused of swaying video referees in favor of Schalke on two occassions during a match back in October. The league has also amended their rules, no longer allowing supervisors to communicate with video refs while the refs are working a match.
Krug denies the allegations, and some of the statements coming from the soccer authorities there make the decision to demote him sound more like an appeasement of some loud and angry Schalke officials rather than an admittance that Krug was in fact compromised. What is evident is that lots of figures in German soccer do not like the replay system at all. From ESPN FC:
The news of Krug’s demotion comes amid growing frustration among Bundesliga officials with the system.
When announcing in January that it would stage a trial period, the DFL said VAR will only be used for clear matters and in four separate situations — for irregularities in the case of a goal decision, penalty box situations regarding penalty calls, red card offences unnoticed by the referee, and in cases of mistaken identity over a yellow or red card.
Eleven matchdays into the new season, there is a growing concern that VAR is failing to bring more fairness into decision-making and has served largely to increase confusion, which has been fuelled by a lack of communication from those in charge of the trial.
Nebulous rules, confusion about what kinds of acts do allow for post hoc investigation and which do not, and inconsistency all around. Sounds very familiar. An AP story has more specific grievances from annoyed Bundesligers:
Not all video-assisted decisions have been clear-cut and there have been other controversies, too. Cologne felt particularly aggrieved over a goal scored by Borussia Dortmund in their game in September, awarded after video consultation despite referee Felix Brych blowing his whistle before the ball crossed the line - signaling a break in play.
Not using VAR has also led to anger and frustration. Stuttgart was the victim last Saturday, when Dzenis Burnic was sent off early in its 3-1 loss in Hamburg with his second yellow card. Referee Guido Winkmann acknowledged after the game that it was unjust decision.
“It’s a game-deciding decision after 12 minutes that’s totally false,” said Stuttgart coach Hannes Wolf, who blasted the video assistant’s inability to get involved. “The person in Cologne can’t say anything. I find that ridiculous, that there’s someone there professionally who’s not allowed say anything. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Fans are also upset, frustrated by the breaks in games while referees consult monitors on the sidelines, then by goals reversed after celebrations, or other decisions going against their teams - even when the decisions are technically correct.
The Borussia Dortmund-Cologne incident refers to this moment when Dortmund were ultimately awarded their second goal on the day after it had at first been ruled out:
Cologne’s anger is understandable. The play in question—a BVB corner kick that defender Sokratis eventually lumped into the net—at first was stopped before the goal was scored because the ref believed Cologne’s keeper had been fouled. This was scrutinized by the video ref and the refereeing team reversed the call, rightfully noticing that it was actually a Cologne player who had obstructed his own keeper, not a Dortmund one, making the foul call erroneous. However, in live time the referee blew his whistle before the ball went in, which should’ve ended the play right then and there. How can the VAR’s decision to reverse the foul call also retroactively unblow the whistle that everyone heard? Sure, Sokratis’s shot was probably already goalwards when the ref blew the play dead, but even that doesn’t answer the epistemological question about when whistles can be disregarded if the incident that was whistled was later judged not to be a foul.
A recent incident from Italy’s Serie A, a league that also debuted video replay this year, solidifies the system’s flaws in practice:
It’s a little hard to tell from the video above, but what happens here is a Genoa player tries to control a ball passed into him while inside the box, he goes down after a challenge, the ref doesn’t give a penalty, and a few seconds later the ball goes out of play. During the stoppage, the VAR reviews the incident and decides that the Genoa player went down on account of a Juventus player fouling him, and awards a penalty. However, a closer look would reveal that the fouled Genoa player was probably offside when he went to touch the pass before getting fouled. Should an offside call preempt a foul when both are spotted upon review? Who determines this? And is it fair if the VAR misses one infraction and instead rules on another infraction the VAR did spot? All this does is make the process even more fraught in an effort to achieve a level of perfect accuracy that is impossible.
In an effort to stabalize the system, the German soccer association has attempted to clarify the definitions about when and how replay can be used. Predictibly, all this does is threaten to turn interpreting the rulebook into an act similar to parsing the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. The Bundesliga’s original standard for when video replay could be used was “when the referee on the pitch has made a clear wrong decision or missed a decisive incident.” German soccer mag kicker later reported that the German soccer association wrote a letter intended to go out to the league’s teams to notify the clubs that they’d broadened this standard starting on matchday five of the season, allowing the VAR to review calls that weren’t simply a result of “obvious error” by the referee. However, kicker reported that this letter wasn’t actually sent to clubs until the 10th matchday.
To try and clean up this interpretive mess, the German soccer association explained in the same statement from Monday in which they announced Krug’s demotion that, actually, the standard as outlined in the letter kicker reported was itself obsolete now. The current standard, as the latest statement laid out, says “the video assistant only intervenes if there is a mistake in perception in decisive scenes.” Good luck divining what any of this means in real terms or how any of the various standards differ from one another.
With officials scrambling to explain away video replay’s problems to their skeptical audience and trying to remedy the situation on the fly, it’s unclear at this point whether those in favor of replay would admit that this whole deal has been a failure. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that at the very least the implementation of the VAR in Germany has left much to be desired. Even one replay-sympathetic Bundesliga manager believes the system might not be long for this world—a decision he says he’s against but admits might be in the best interests of the sport itself:
Gladbach coach Dieter Hecking said following his side’s 1-1 draw at Mainz this weekend — a result affected by controversial VAR decisions — that he believes the trial period could be scrapped mid-season.
“I daresay it will be scrapped in the winter break,” he said. “It would be good for football, but all of us do everything we can to stop it.”