Is Serie A’s plan for an increased use of VAR a good idea?

VERONA, ITALY - DECEMBER 15: The referee Federico La Penna checks at the VAR intervention during the Serie A match between Hellas Verona and Torino FC at Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi on December 15, 2019 in Verona, Italy. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
VERONA, ITALY - DECEMBER 15: The referee Federico La Penna checks at the VAR intervention during the Serie A match between Hellas Verona and Torino FC at Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi on December 15, 2019 in Verona, Italy. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images) /

Italian officials say they are ready to “intensify” the use of VAR and “on-field review” to avoid controversy in Serie A. Is using it more a good idea?

Serie A is all in when it comes to the use of VAR. The video replay system currently in use there, and in many leagues and FIFA competitions like the World Cup, will see increased use. The reason? To cut down on controversy.

“Italy was one of the first countries in the world to experiment with technology in football,” a statement from the Italian federation (FIGC) released earlier this month read. “The adoption of the VAR by IFAB was preceded by an off-line test period in the top tier of Italian football and generated exceptional results, contributing significantly to the implementation of the definitive protocol.”

The statement added, “Animated by the same desire to innovate and with the same spirit of service of the time, the FIGC has interpreted the request received in recent weeks by numerous Serie A clubs and has informally anticipated FIFA its willingness to experiment with the use of the challenge.”

The use of the video assistant referee, used in Serie A for the first time during the 2017-18 season, was put in place to decide the validity of a goal, whether a team deserved a penalty kick, the issuing of a red card or a mistake in awarding a yellow or red card.

The aim next season is for Serie A to use a system similar to the NFL where managers can challenge decisions and ask for VAR to make a ruling. Such a decision would have to be approved by FIFA, although Italian referees aren’t much in favor. Under such a scenario, VAR would fall under the control of teams as well as match officials.

It’s true that there have been some dubious calls made this season. In reality, Italy is one of those places where decisions by referees are scrutinized and debated for days and weeks. While it is true that VAR has been helpful, its use has not totally eliminated bad calls or controversy. Every weekend it seems there are coaches and players who complain about how a missed call cost them points.

It was in December that Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi said of video replay: “Personally, I think I can represent the opinion of any referee at our level, VAR is a fabulous tool, it has made our lives easier and also more calm from certain points of view. It’s clear, as for all things you can improve and you can do better, but I guarantee it’s a fabulous tool.”

Regarding controversy, Rocchi, who was recognized last season as Italy’s best referee, added: “The referee always and indisputably officiates the game. VAR gives you an important and fundamental support sometimes, but the final decision is always the referees.”

Adding to the problem is that many fans believe referees are in the tank for Juventus. The Calciopoli scandal and the fallout that ensued didn’t help the situation. While Juve was penalized, they have emerged as the best team in Italy, by far, and have won the league championship the last eight straight seasons.

While the Calciopoli scandal was real, conspiracy theories are not.

The aim here is that VAR will limited errors, although refs are human. Having more technology encroach on the game will certainly have purists in a frenzy. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories won’t go away because VAR is used more in the future.

Italian soccer culture has been built on fans spreading such misinformation and TV sports shows dissecting calls after games. It’s part of the country’s sports culture, although it is often an unhealthy fascination.

Who would benefit most from such a system remains a question. It would certainly give managers more power and referees slightly less. Which teams would benefit most is also a question since calls are often nuanced and subjective. It would, the clubs argue, give them recourse (while games are still happening) to have a call go their way. Replays after the fact don’t help a team that’s just lost a match because a good goal was mistakenly disallowed.

Referees have argued that there has been too much use of VAR and that those decisions, data shows, can sometimes take up to two minutes to review. That breaks the flow of soccer, a sport that doesn’t have any commercial breaks other than halftime. That’s another reason why more VAR could slow down the pace and flow of a game that, as of now, fits nicely into a two-hour TV window.

But there is some data to show who has and hasn’t benefited from VAR the way it is currently used.

As of February 16, VAR decisions helped Lazio and Fiorentina the most (8 times each), while Udinese was at the bottom of the 20-team league (with just one). League leaders Juventus were also near the bottom with three. VAR decisions went against Udinese the most (11 times), followed by Napoli with eight, according to Serie A officials. Juventus was in the middle of the pack with six. At the bottom of that table were Inter Milan and Lazio, both with one apiece.

This is an interesting list given that Lazio are now in the hunt for the title, along with Inter Milan, in an effort to stop Juventus. The one thing that’s for sure is that the standings could look radically different had those calls not been overturned by VAR. It could look even more radically different should managers get the chance to challenge calls they don’t like on the field.

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