Soccer must be careful with video replay, it could spoil the sport

English referee Howard Webb. (Martin Meissner/AP)

Every so often a match occurs that acts as a watershed for the discussion over video technology in soccer.

The recent Champions League quarterfinal second leg between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich was one of those matches, with three of the six goals scored the result of controversial refereeing decisions.

Indeed, Real Madrid’s have referee Viktor Kassai to thank, in some part, for advancing to the competition’s final four. They likely wouldn’t be there had the Hungarian made the correct calls throughout, although Bayern Munich’s two goals were similarly the consequence of some dodgy decision-making from the man in the middle.

It once again raised the discussion over the implementation of video technology, with soccer closer than ever to giving referees the assistance they have desired for years. VAR (video assistant referee) was used on a trial basis in an international friendly between France and Spain, with Major League Soccer set to become the first professional league to use the technology later this year.

Refereeing as an industry is suffering something of a crisis, with whistlers at their lowest ever ebb. Never before have soccer fans found themselves wound up so much over the decisions being made by officials.

The implementation of video technology is becoming an inevitability, with former Premier League referee Howard Webb heading up the VAR program for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) in the United States. Soccer is investing heavily in finding a way to make the lives of referees easier, striving to ensure that the sport at the highest level is no longer vulnerable to human error.

That, of course, is an admirable cause. Soccer would be a more enjoyable pursuit if every refereeing call was guaranteed to be correct, but the sport must be mindful in its efforts to implement video technology. There is a lot at stake. The spirit of the game could be compromised if we’re not careful.

“Henry’s handball against Ireland convinced me we needed assistance or to try a system,” Webb explained in a recent interview, elaborating on why he accepted his role in the United States.

“It seems not right that a goal stands when it was such a clear and obvious mistake and one ref had very little chance of calling it on the pitch.

“This is a really huge development in the way that the game is officiated, probably the biggest change we are going to see in modern times. I was keen to become part of the conversation.”

Having someone of Webb’s experience will aid the efforts to implement VAR at the elite level of the sport, but the Englishman must recognize the importance of his role. Get this wrong and the essence of soccer could be tainted. Video technology works in other sports, such as tennis, but making it work in soccer is an altogether different challenge.

Goals are the most precious currency in soccer and the implementation of VAR could potentially spoil the moment of euphoria in scoring them. Imagine a match-winning goal of the utmost drama only for the moment to be cut short by the use of the VAR. Rugby has struggled with this issue since adopting the TMO system used for making decisions on tries. The drama of crossing the line is now frequently stemmed by technology. 

Hawk-Eye works in tennis because there are so many decisive moments that collectively contribute to the end result. The same is not the case with soccer, where a single goal can, and often does, decide the outcome of a match. Spoil that and you spoil the entire sport. 

Until the technology exists to decide objective decisions such as offsides, in the way it does with goal-line decisions, it’s difficult to see how VAR won't slow down soccer’s natural tempo. Subjective calls will take deliberation and that takes time.

It’s for this reason that we are at a critical juncture in the history of the game - do we accept the occasional wrong decision as the cost to preserve the sport’s essence or do we implement video technology at the cost of soccer’s spirit? That is the question Webb and everyone else lobbying for VAR must ask themselves.

Sportsnet's Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport's biggest issues.