The way to hell is paved with good intentions; what football’s VAR can learn from an anti-corruption programme in Brazil

“Football is not a matter of life or death” claimed Bill Shankly, an iconic former manager of Liverpool football club, “it’s far more important than that”. Shankly, ever able to come up with a memorable line, was certainly over-egging that particular pudding, but the importance of football to billions of people around the planet shouldn’t be ignored.

Football is also, of course, a multi-billion dollar business. There is serious money to be made both within the game (i.e. the salaries that top players earn) and from without it (i.e. via advertising contracts, sponsoring opportunities and such like).  It’s with that in mind that FIFA, the governing body of world football, is trying to take steps to make sure that the decisions the officials on the field take are correct.

Helping referees out

Being a football referee is not easy.  The game is faster now than it ever was.  Referees are required to be real physical athletes just to keep up with the flow of play.  Throw in the fact that when the stakes are so high players are often more than willing to try and game officials and it becomes clear that a referee’s lot is not a straightforward one.

Those who oversee world football have subsequently made concerted efforts over the years to help referees out. Two referees’ assistants have run up and down the sidelines since as early as 1891, whilst exactly 100 years later a fourth official was introduced on the sidelines to further assistant the man/woman in the middle. Furthermore, in 2009 two more officials were added at either end of the field for high profile international fixtures. Refereeing is clearly now a team game, too.

On top of the human additions, goal-line technology now tells referees when the ball has crossed the goal-line. Indeed, that has become the norm in high profile competitions like the Premier League. Furthermore, its use is now widely accepted.  It was not always thus.

The use of technology to help referees out has not stopped there.  In 2018 the notion of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was written in to the laws of the game.  In essence, the system is simple. Video technology can be used to assess whether errors have been made in four areas; in the run up to a goal being scored, in penalty decisions, in decisions that lead to straight red cards and to cases of mistaken identity (i.e. when red or yellow cars have been awarded incorrectly). If it becomes clear that the referee has made a mistake, the decision will be overturned.

The referee can ask the team of officials operating VAR to look at decisions he/she has made or officials can unilaterally choose to check decisions. Either way, the aim is to help stamp out really bad refereeing calls.

The proof of the pudding

In many ways the logic behind VAR is impeccable.  Who can’t want to see correct decisions being made? But, the devil lies in the detail and football’s technology buffs could do worse than look at the world of anti-corruption to see why the theory doesn’t always match the practice.

As in football, no one wants to see more corruption.  No one argues that corruption (read ‘bad referring decisions’) is to be encouraged. But anti-corruption scholars and activists have long since learnt that whilst using technology to fight corruption can work (see this great example where potential corruption cases in aid projects can be tracked, for example) it can never provide all the answers.

One such example comes from Brazil. A computer programme called Rosie has been developed to keep an eye on the expenses’ claims that Brazilian parliamentarians make.  Why?  Well, Brazilian MPs have a history of buffing up their expenses so as to make a little extra money on the side.  Rosie doesn’t just look at how many Reals have been claimed, she looks at what they have been claimed for and whether that claim is out of line with what should broadly have been expected.  If a given claim looks anomalous, Rosie alerts real people so that they can investigate further.

More specifically, Rosie is looking to pinpoint cases where Brazilian law-makers spend more than the R$ 46.000 (US$ 14,700) that they are allowed. They can spend this on various expenditures that are necessary to do their jobs; meals, flight tickets, fuel and such like. As this nice explainer notes, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies used to get around 20,000 individual claims a month and before Rosie was invented each of those had to be processed manually; a system wide open to error and, in the worst cases, corruption.

In theory, Rosie is doing work that humans can’t.  She’s keeping an overview of many thousands of transactions and highlighting cases that the human eye might well miss.  Yet, ultimately, Rosie is simply not capable of passing qualified judgement.  A out-of-since claim may indeed be evidence of corruption and Rosie’s advocates have been quick to point those out.  Or the claim may simply be left-field but defensible. Rosie can’t know that.  Furthermore, parliamentarians have quickly got to know the new rules of the game and they can and do change their behaviour accordingly.  Maybe they change the nature of the expenses claims that they make or, more probably, they simply find other ways to make that extra buck.

Learning from Rosie

What does all this have to do with VAR? Rosie is ultimately trying to make an exact science out of a fundamentally subjective process.  VAR is doing exactly the same.  Rosie is good at highlighting outlandish claims, VAR should be able to pick up outlandish refereeing faux pas. Rosie can and does make a contribution to nailing down spurious expenses claims.  VAR, in theory, should be able to do the same in terms of helping referees get decisions right.

Yet, the more one looks the more one realises that whilst Rosie has a role to play, the more one wonders whether the same really can be said for VAR.  For one thing, whilst there is a level of subjectivity that Rosie struggles with, this is multiplied significantly in the case of football. Pundits spend hours contemplating whether a particular decision to give a penalty, for example, was indeed right.  There is anything but a consensus on exactly when a player ‘dives’ or when he/she simply loses his balance.  There is a list of potentially contentious points where Rosie struggles, but that list in the case of refereeing decisions in football is much, much longer.

Narrower though Rosie’s remit is, she experiences precisely the same problem. She can see things.  But she can’t pass definitive judgement on them.  Indeed, the people who then come to Rosie’s aid also find some cases quite hard to make calls on, too. Goal-line technology, on the other hand, works precisely because there is a definitive answer out there.  Technology can indeed tell us whether the ball is over the line, just as the DRS in cricket can tell us (more or less every time) whether a batter has been run out.  In cases where there is doubt in cricket, there is a widely-accepted (and long-standing) plan B; the decision of the on field referee (or ‘umpire’) stands.  End of story.

The Way to Hell

FIFA’s decision to use VAR in the forthcoming World Cup is therefore a case of the way to hell being well and truly paved with good intentions. Much as we might want to believe otherwise, the types of decision that get referred to VAR do not have clear-cut answers.

There is, of course, an irony to this. Players make mistakes all the time.  They give the ball away, they mis-time tackles, they drift out of position, they take shots that end up nowhere near the goal.  Indeed, the imperfection of the game is, for many, one of its most endearing features.

Putting it more bluntly, football is simply not mature enough for us to expect VAR to work. Too many people within the sport are out and out utility maximisers who really aren’t interested in treating officials (and indeed the game) with the respect it deserves.

Given all of this, expect VAR to provide yet more controversy in the summer.  Buckle up football fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Dan Hough

8 May 2018

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