As any football fan knows, the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system is a definite game changer – although whether it is for best, might depend on who you ask. This is because despite being new to the sport, VAR has already been involved in a number of controversial decisions ranging from the 2018 World Cup to the current edition of the Champions League tournament. Yet, there are a number of things football can learn from hockey’s use of VAR.
It is worth noting that many disapprove of VAR in football, with sceptics believing that it affects the way we now view the game live. Fans have accused the technology of slowing the game down among other things, with referees miming the now famous TV rectangle in the air throughout the game, and often pausing for several minutes to review footage. This is in contrast to how it is used in field hockey, where players can only call for reviews on plays happening within the 23-metre area and relating to the awarding or ruling out goals, penalty corners and penalty strokes. This also ties in with the fact that teams are only allowed to request one video referral per game. This allows for the game to be played more accurately and fluidly, without having sacrificing the pace of the game that fans have grown to love.
Another key difference between how VAR is utilised in the two sports is the role that umpires play in field hockey. Although a video referral’s time starts as soon as the whistle for it is called, an umpire cannot start watching it until they know the exact call being questioned. Here, a key improvement has been made – whereas the language used to question decisions previously needed to be precise, the rules around this have now been relaxed. This can be especially beneficial in cases where players and umpires do not speak the same language.
One can only imagine how this may play out in high pressure matches in the Champions League. Take, for example, the controversial third goal awarded to Ajax in the second leg of their clash against Real Madrid despite doubts over whether the ball had gone out of play just a few seconds earlier. The goal helped Ajax to claim a 5-3 aggregate win over Real Madrid. This has allowed them to progress to the semi-finals with bwin Sports ranking Ajax as favourites to get past Tottenham and into the final after beating them 1-0 in the first leg. Had the same VAR rules been in play as field hockey, however, Madrid could have used their one team referral in the game to call for a review and possibly even had the decision overturned.
Yet, as with all things, even field hockey’s VAR could be improved and initiatives to do so using artificial intelligence (AI) are already underway. With AI, robots can be trained to locate what it calculates as the best angles for contentious plays, thus, providing another perspective for referees that can make the difference in crucial games. As this is a development that can be used in both sports, the potential for field hockey and football to improve and provide fans and players with better match experiences is now in the hands of each sport’s governing body.