The introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) has led to a lot of discussion in many sports, particularly football. That is because VAR has slowed decisions down and hasn’t cut out all referring errors.
One particularly shocking example arose from poor communication between the on-field referee and the VAR team at a Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Livepool on 30 September 2023. The on-field referee disallowed a goal by Liverpool’s Luis Díaz because he thought Díaz was offside. The VAR team reviewed the video footage and saw that the player was in fact onside. The VAR then said to the on-field referee ‘Check complete, it’s fine’.
Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the referee took that comment as meaning that the original decision (offside) was fine, not that the goal was fine. The VAR soon realised the mistake, but not soon enough. The goal was not allowed.
Extract from PGMOL statement, 3 October 2023 (with audio)
After the on-field officials had disallowed the goal for offside, the checking phase and process started and was carried out correctly by the VAR. … The image created showed that Luis Diaz was clearly onside …. In a lapse of concentration and loss of focus in that moment, the VAR lost sight of the on-field decision and he incorrectly communicated “check complete”, therefore inadvertently confirming the on-field decision.
The match then restarted immediately. After a few seconds, the Replay Operator and then the AVAR queried the check-complete outcome with the VAR and asked him to review the image that had been created, pointing out that the original on-field decision had been offside, but this was not communicated to the on-field team at any point during the match.
The VAR team then … decided intervention was not possible as play had restarted.
PGMOL release VAR audio from Spurs v Liverpool (premierleague.com)
PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) is the body responsible for referees in professional football in England.
Here is a summary and commentary by Sky Sports https://www.skysports.com/football/news/12040/12976633/liverpool-var-audio-dissected-forensic-analysis-of-offside-mistake-after-pgmol-release-discussion
What went wrong?
At the heart of this error was poor communication between the on-field and off-field match officials. For some reason, football referees (in England at least) have been managing their decision-making conversations in a chaotic and undisciplined one. It is striking that match officials in other sports have much clear frameworks. In both cricket and rugby union, the on-field official asks a disciplined question, and the VAR responds in a very precise and structure way, saying what they can see.
VAR in cricket and rugby union
The details of the questions and answers differ between those 2 sports because of differences in the nature of the decisions needed and differences in the relative authorities of the on-field and off-field authorities:
- in cricket, the VAR makes the decisions, while going through a disciplined set of steps and telling the umpire (and TV audience) of the outcome of each step. The VAR then and relays the decision (precisely and concisely) to the on-field umpire. VAR decisions are mostly about whether a better was dismissed (‘out’).
- In rugby union, the referee tells the VAR what the on-field decision is and what help is needed from the VAR. The VAR then finds video footage, picking camera angles that will best answer the question asked. That footage is then shown on a large screen in the arena. The referee (with assistants) and VAR watch the footage. The referee says what he/she can see and what he/she concludes from it, asking whether the assistants and VAR have seen the same things and whether they have reached the same conclusions. The referee then makes the final decision. VAR decisions are mostly about whether a try was scored and about decisions on whether to send a player off for dangerous or foul play.
A long-standing precedent
One other arena where clear and concise communication is vitally important is aviation. For many years, pilots and air traffic controllers have been talking to each other only using precise, controlled words and phrases. This is important in routine communication, and is even more important in an emergency. To avoid the dangers that would arise if pilots or controllers were not proficient enough in the language being used, the communication occurs only in one language—English.
What are referees doing to fix the problem?
According to press reports, PGMOL has since the incident in September 2023 received briefings on communication both from the referee of the 2023 Rugby Union World Cup Final and from the aviation sector. I hope that English football referees will in the future adopt a professional and more disciplined approach to their decision-making discussions.
For more on VAR, please see Obstructing vision with a transparent adverb – Language Miscellany