February 7, 2023

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Football VAR is a lesson in flawed technology

The author is the founder of Sifted, an FT supported media company covering European start-ups

When Cameroonian striker Vincent Aboubakar flamboyantly fired the ball over the Serbian goalkeeper’s head and into the back net, he thought he was offside. But above all the linesman. Aboubakar’s celebrations only began when the video assistant referee suggested otherwise, helping Cameroon stage a thrilling comeback in Monday’s World Cup match in Qatar.

Before the introduction of VAR, Aboubakar’s goal would not have been allowed. Had it been operational in Mexico in 1986, VAR would certainly have ruled out Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘God hand’ goal against England when the Argentine punched the ball over the line. Football destinies, national mythologies and the emotions of millions of sports fans around the world depend on such decisions made and not made.

At the last World Cup, football was captivating. But the matches should also interest anyone involved in the development or delivery of a technology service. The use of video assisting technology provides an intriguing case study of how difficult it can be to achieve optimal product-market fit in a high-pressure environment that matters tremendously to millions of fanatical followers.

Technology may well deliver greater accuracy, but at what cost? Traditionalists complain that VAR has jeopardized the values ​​of the sport by wasting time, undermining the referees’ ability to act on the pitch and adding new and different dimensions to the controversy.

The use of VAR was first codified in official football laws in 2018, and the technology was introduced at the World Cup in Russia later that same year. Off-field referees, who monitored multiple video feeds, were blamed for identifying “clear and obvious” errors and “serious missed incidents” when it came to awarding goals and penalties, issuing red cards and identity to be confirmed by sanctioned players.

The evidence showed that VAR did indeed increase the accuracy of decision-making. On average, a referee makes 137 observable decisions during an international football match, most of which are now reviewed in near real time. At the World Cup in Russia, the international football governing body Fifa found that of the 455 incidents reviewed by the VAR throughout the tournament, the referees made the correct final decisions 99.4 percent of the time, compared to 95.6 percent without his intervention. As a result, referees detected more violations and imposed 29 penalties (including nine due to VAR checks) compared to 13 at the previous World Cup in Brazil. But the use of VAR also increased the duration of the games: the average time to review an incident was 82 seconds.

Since then, VAR has been adopted by many football leagues around the world. But critics still argue that it has created more confusion than clarity. Few resist objective factual checks, such as whether a football crosses the goal line or a player is flagged for offside. But there is more controversy about subjective decisions, such as awarding a penalty or a red card when the on-field referee is asked to review his initial decision. Holding decisions to a higher standard means they can generate even more outrage if fans think they’re wrong.

There are perhaps two lessons to be learned from using VAR that are applicable to the adoption of many other decision-making systems. First, technology should never be used just for technology’s sake. It should only ever be used in clear and limited situations where it can be shown to improve the process, to inform a human expert’s decision, not to replace it. But efficiency also counts. In trying to solve a number of problems, technology should not create new ones. Systems should be continually improved in response to feedback.

To that end, it’s important that users – and fans – understand how the system works and trust the methodology. Black box systems are rarely a good idea. In that sense, video officials at cricket matches do a better job of showing viewers the evidence and explaining how they arrive at their decisions. Ensuring that decisions can be explained is as critical for VAR as it is for artificial intelligence systems, which are now widely used in many fields such as finance, healthcare and law.

The principle behind VAR of “minimum intervention, maximum benefit” is good. But experience shows how difficult it is to put this into practice. As math teachers insist, show your way of working when solving a problem. The decision-making processes of VAR itself should be reviewed.

Video: Qatar’s World Cup legacy | FT scoreboard