Speed, Accuracy and Enjoyment: Why Football should be taking Hints from Hockey when it comes to VAR

Over the past few months the same recurring topic appears on the football analysis show (VAR), Match of the Day: Video Assistance, and its place in football. We’ve seen top ex-international players, managers, and pundits, giving their two-pence worth on the fact that it ‘slows down the game’, ‘it takes away from the enjoyment of the fans’, and it has inevitably called into question the accuracy of referees’ decisions.

However, is it that VAR just isn’t right for football? Or is it that they just aren’t getting VAR right?

The use of video technology in outdoor hockey began in 2006 at the Women’s Champion’s Trophy in Amstelveen, and after approval has been used at every major international tournament since. Players and officials now know the protocols well, and fans are getting more familiar with the umpire’s distinctive referral signal.
Video Referrals have now become an integral part of the fast-paced, end to end game that we know and love. So what is it exactly that hockey is doing so right, and what can football take away from it?

The speed of the game

How Football Does It
There’s been a lot of debate about how the video system in football takes up too much time, and detracts from the speed of the game; no wonder when the referee is running up to the touchline, watching the playback on a tiny screen over and over, then running back onto the field to make a decision.

How Hockey Does It
Stop time, air draw your box (and don’t forget to cross your T for team referrals), let your colleague up in the video box do their thing, give the decision. Simples.

It takes away from fan enjoyment

How Football Does It
When the VAR is used in football, more often than not the fans just simply don’t know why it has been called upon, apart from the educated guess of the commentator. It’s often unclear what the referee is unsure about or wants to review, on top of how they have arrived at their decision.

How Hockey Does It
At the highest level of hockey, the original query along with the final decision is broadcast over the PA system and TV, allowing the officials to communicate their question – and answer – to the crowd and fans watching at home. It leaves little room for fans to question how the officials have arrived at their decision, even if they disagree.

It undermines the officials

How Football Does It
The lack of personal penalties to players who dissent or display unsportsmanlike behaviour towards the officials does not help the situation in football. Once the decision has been made, crowds of players often gather around the referee or their assistants, and it is not uncommon for players to swear and gesticulate violently at officials. This automatically undermines the referee: are fans in the stands or at home more likely to believe their heroes on their favourite football team, or the man who seemingly makes decisions on a whim?

How Hockey Does It
Hockey has that perfect balance of players knowing exactly how and when they can question an umpire’s decision, and umpire’s knowing when it is too much. Only one player is permitted to discuss with the umpire at any one time: three’s a crowd and not allowed. Any disrespectful behaviour towards the umpire is dealt with using personal penalties. Once a decision has been made using Video Referral, the players accept this and get on with the game, regardless of their opinion.

What needs to change?
The use of VAR in football when compared to hockey ultimately calls two things into question: the discipline of the players, and the format in which video technology is used. One thing is for sure: compared to football, hockey is getting video referrals right.