The term “VAR” has become a part of the soccer lexicon. The Video Assistant Referee is soccer’s euphemism for instant replay, a change that many people — including me — argued in favor of when it was first introduced.
After more than a year of use in MLS and other leagues around the world, it’s time to admit: I was wrong. Instant replay in soccer is a terrible idea. FIFA is going to use it for the World Cup this year, so prepare for it to ruin some of the best games of the tournament.
Terrible refereeing has been a hallmark of soccer since long before instant replay was technically feasible. Some of the greatest moments in soccer history, such as Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup, cried out for some sort of instant review. Had Maradona punched the ball over England goalkeeper Peter Shilton today, the referee would have placed his hand to his ear to indicate to everyone that he was listening for a message from the video referee. He would have stood around for more than a minute as a confused, angry stadium crowd waited to hear the decree of the unseen video referee. The game would have ground to a screeching halt.
And then, the referees still probably would have awarded the goal. VAR hasn’t exactly led to increased accuracy. Even with the benefit of replay, referees still regularly get calls wrong, overturn others without clear evidence and perform almost as poorly with video as they do without it. Just as with every other sport that’s introduced instant replay, if a referee or umpire is involved, mistakes will be made, with slow-motion video or not.
We might as well just have the mistakes of the on-field referees, which at least let the game go on at a normal pace.
Now imagine if the video referee would have been in place for Maradona’s second goal in that 2-1 Argentina victory over England at the 1986 World Cup. Dubbed Goal of the Century by FIFA, Maradona beat four England defenders and the goalkeeper, starting in his own half of the field, perhaps the greatest individual goal ever scored on a world stage.
And then, the video referee would have placed his hand to his ear, waiting to hear from the video referee if Maradona had fouled anyone. Or perhaps whether another Argentina player might have been 4 inches offside. Or whether any other infraction might have been committed. All of the joy of one of soccer’s best moments would have drained away as players, fans in attendance and soccer fanatics around the world waited for the results of a court ruling.
Instant replay needs to go into the garbage bin, alongside other failed soccer rule changes. It doesn’t improve the refereeing that much, and it ruins the experience of a goal. Soccer can do without VAR.
• With the World Cup set to begin Thursday, FIFA on Wednesday is scheduled to announce whether the 2026 World Cup will be hosted by Morocco or a joint bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada. The odds are better for North America than Morocco, but given FIFA’s penchant for out-of-left-field choices, it seems to me that Morocco should be the favorite.
• With no United States at the World Cup, the impact of missing players on MLS teams will be lessened. Nineteen players from the league will play at the World Cup – three from Mexico and six each from Panama and Costa Rica (including Minnesota United’s Francisco Calvo), as well as two from Peru and one each from Egypt and Sweden. That may not sound like a lot, but outside the big five leagues in Europe, only Turkey is sending more non-domestic players to the tournament.
• This week Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt unveiled his Austin, Texas, stadium plan, which would put the stadium next to a shopping center in Austin’s northern reaches. It’s hard to see why MLS is willing to throw away a loyal Columbus fanbase and the USA’s first soccer-specific stadium for a location that’s nowhere near Austin’s downtown, but is very near both a Wal-Mart and a Discount Tire. Perhaps I just don’t understand the business of soccer.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
MLS: Atlanta at New York City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, ESPN+ (subscription required). It’s a shame that the top two teams in the Eastern Conference aren’t playing on a normal TV channel. NYC has scored at least two goals in every home match this year, while Atlanta has played much more conservatively on the road.
Friendly: Mexico at Denmark, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Univision. It hasn’t been a great pre-World Cup for Mexico so far, including a scoreless draw with Wales and a 1-0 victory against a bad Scotland team. A trip to Denmark might be El Tri’s best chance to get positive vibes going before opening their World Cup campaign against — gulp — Germany.
Friendly: USA men at France, 2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. If you took the 23 best players who didn’t make France’s World Cup squad and entered them in the tournament as another nation, that team probably would be favored to make the quarterfinals. The young U.S. squad would love to harass the first-choice France team ahead of the World Cup.
MLS: New York at Columbus, 4 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. Two consecutive stumbles against also-ran teams has New York’s place among the MLS elite looking a little questionable, while Columbus hasn’t lost in the league since mid-April. Federico Higuaín and the Crew came back from 3-0 down against Toronto last week to draw 3-3, an impressive comeback.