The English Premier League on Tuesday released audio of the “significant human error” that led officials to incorrectly disallow Luis Diaz’s goal for Liverpool against Tottenham.
The league did this amid a firestorm of criticism and a Liverpool-led inquest, and to prove, essentially, that its refereeing isn’t corrupt.
But the audio, which includes frantic discussion and expletives among a group of video assistant referees (VARs), instead exposed the senseless and backwards protocols that govern the VAR process.
The Premier League had already given a legible, detailed explanation for how the error occurred — an explanation that the audio confirms. Diaz scored for Liverpool in the 34th minute. An assistant referee raised his flag to signal that Diaz was offside. The VAR then initiated a review, which showed that Diaz was actually onside. But to communicate that decision, the VAR simply said “check complete, check complete” — because he didn’t realize that the assistant’s flag had raised; he thought the on-field decision had been to allow the goal.
It was an honest mistake, and immediately recognized by a replay operator, who told the VARs: “Wait wait wait wait. On-field decision was offside. Are you — are you happy with this?”
After a few seconds of confusion, an assistant VAR told the head VAR: “That’s wrong.”
And after a few more seconds of confusion, the VAR realized his error. “Oh [expletive],” he said.
PGMOL have released the audio of the conversation between on-field officials and VAR following Saturday’s match between Tottenham and Liverpool. pic.twitter.com/ftMP8jcNXr
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) October 3, 2023
Panic ensued. The replay operator asked the VAR to pause the game.
But the VAR responded, repeatedly: “Can’t do anything.” His reasoning was that the game had already restarted.
So it continued, with Liverpool fans fuming. The decision, coupled with a separate VAR review that yielded a debatable red card for Liverpool midfielder Curtis Jones, led some of those fans to accuse the EPL and/or its refs of pursuing a vendetta against their club. After the PGMOL, England’s refereeing body, admitted to the error, Liverpool released a statement calling for “full transparency.”
“In the meantime,” the club statement concluded, “we will explore the range of options available, given the clear need for escalation and resolution.”
Three days later, the Premier League gave everyone transparency. It delivered the audio first to the victim, Liverpool, and then to the public. This was an unprecedented move, and offered an extraordinary window into the VAR process. It more or less proved that this mistake — which proved costly in a 2-1 Tottenham victory — had indeed been a result of “significant human error.”
But the audio also became an ironic indictment of VAR, and the most damning exposé yet of its fundamental flaw.
The entire premise of VAR is that an official should be able to stop a match to correct an egregious error.
Yet when the VAR himself makes an egregious error, apparently there is no recourse.
Apparently, in other words, refereeing error is a part of soccer, and we all need to rethink our approach to mitigating it.
The replay operator pleaded with the VARs on Saturday, relaying instructions from his boss: “Delay, delay.” This was less than 30 seconds after the game had restarted. The ball was out of play, awaiting a throw-in. Surely, in any sensible league and sport, the game could have been paused, the error explained, and the goal given.
But the VARs did none of that. “The VAR and [assistant] VAR concluded that the VAR protocol within the Laws of the Game would not permit that to happen,” the PGMOL said in a statement. Um, why?
The PGMOL statement added that other arcane protocols would be tweaked and strengthened. But what it ignored was the bigger picture, and the inherent contradiction.
VAR was pitched as a mechanism for addressing “clear and obvious errors,” but its overlords never adequately defined what a “clear and obvious error” is. So its administrators, referees, have been on a futile pursuit of perfection, re-litigating every single somewhat debatable call, overstepping their original mandate.
And so all VAR has done is shifted the crux of debates. We used to argue the merits of a referee’s decision. We now argue the merits of a VAR’s decision. There is only a marginal benefit — the undoing of blatant errors. There is, on the other hand, a significant cost — delays, uncertainty surrounding every goal, baffling reviews of minor details that no naked eye saw, anger and confusion.
VAR, as a concept, is not unworkable. If executed correctly, it would have overturned an on-field mistake and awarded Luis Diaz his goal. It could occasionally divert fans’ focus (and blame) away from referees, onto players and coaches.
But the current system is chasing an ideal that’s unattainable. It is broken beyond repair. The only real solution is an overhaul and the introduction of a challenge system.