Trying to Make Soccer a “Science”: Video Assistant Referee and the Elusive Technocratic Dream

The most important factor determining who wins or loses in the 2019 Women’s World Cup under way in France is not a soccer player, but a piece of technology. VAR, or Video Assistant Referee, is a video review system in which the referee can replay incidents in the match, and subsequently change the call on the field after review. It is easy for referees to miss flagrant infractions in real time, so VAR is there to ensure that something like the “hand of God,” Diego Maradona’s infamous goal with his hand, cannot occur again.

In reality, however, VAR has made refereeing decisions more controversial, not less. In the first-round game between Spain and South Africa, a South African defender cleared the ball and play continued. No foul was called, nor was there any reason to suspect there was a foul; yet whoever was monitoring video replays alerted the referee to a potential incident and encouraged the referee to consult VAR instant replay. The defender had cleared the ball and fallen backwards, and during the follow-through of her kick her cleats came off the ground. The Spanish forward ran into the defender’s cleats as she fell backward; upon reviewing the detailed replays over and over, the referee judged this to have been a “studs-up” tackle, awarded a penalty kick to Spain, and gave the defender a yellow card (her second), which sent her off the field and left South Africa with only 10 players. It changed the tide of the game, and South Africa, which had been leading for most of the game, never recovered and left the tournament without scoring another goal.

As someone watching the game live on television, this call seemed extremely questionable; yet it turned out to precipitate a series of ever-more problematic VAR-influenced results. In the game between Jamaica and Italy, the Jamaican goalkeeper made a fantastic penalty kick save—only to have it called back by VAR for having come off of her line too early. (The retaken kick went in.) The same happened in the game between France and Nigeria, but this one was even more consequential: France scored on the retaken penalty kick, won the game 1-0, and knocked Nigeria out of the tournament. Scotland faced a near-identical fate: a saved penalty was called back, the retake went in, and Argentina eliminated the Scots.

The goal-line infractions were so miniscule as to be impossible to spot in the flow of the game, and only barely noticeable on video replay. Referees have turned a blind eye to far more egregious violations of the rule in the past, such as the Women’s World Cup finals of 1999. Nor would it be a consensus view among soccer players, or even referees, to think that a post-clearance collision should be considered a studs-up tackle. VAR caused such headaches in the opening rounds that FIFA decided to change the rules in the middle of the tournament, realizing that the VAR-enabled stringent enforcement of penalty kick rules were likely to throw the game into turmoil during penalty kick shootouts in the knockout rounds.

VAR is the distillation of the modern technocratic vision to blame human error for society’s ills and believe that the answer lies in replacing the human element of judgment with automated, scientific tools. If we are just able to use more advanced technology, the thinking goes, human error will dissipate and what will be left is something “pure,” untainted by uncertainty or individual judgment. It is the same logic of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management of workers to optimize and rationalize human labor, to reduce gray areas with objective, scientific, and standardized facts. The referee—the sine qua non of poor human judgment, in the eyes of any sports fan—should be rendered irrelevant, replaced by a machine unfettered by the burdens of head or heart. Technology now allows us to make this switch from human to machine, to replace the whims of individual referees with the unfeeling science of a machine.

The desire to avoid disastrous refereeing blunders is well-intentioned, but VAR has once again shown the limits of technology in the fundamentally messy realm of human affairs. Soccer, like any human creation, cannot be reduced to a set of stackable, interchangeable building blocks that can be scientifically maximized. Bringing in technology does not eliminate human error; rather, it makes it much more obvious that soccer is, at its core, human judgment all the way down. It provides more information, but more information in no way guarantees the resulting judgment to be any more “scientific” or “factual” than the original call.

VAR highlights two problems with the technocratic vision, in this case as applied to soccer. For many refereeing decisions, the rules themselves are ambiguous, and even the most precise technological instruments could never eliminate the need for human judgment. For other issues, the rules may be relatively clear, but how strictly a referee should adhere to the text of the rules as written, rather than the context in which the game is being played, also requires some level of human judgment.

Take, for example, a handball. The official soccer rules for a handball state that it “involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.” What makes something “deliberate?” Except in the most extreme cases, no soccer player would use their hand on purpose: thus, basically all handballs are “not deliberate.” Given this, the standard rule for judging a handball rests on the natural/unnatural distinction. If a player’s arm is in a natural position and is hit by the ball, it is not a handball; only if the player’s arm is in an unnatural position, such as stuck far out from their body, can a handball be called.

The Supreme Court, stocked with highly trained lawyers and judges, has struggled for centuries to define the word “deliberate.” Philosophers have debated for centuries the meaning of the word “natural.” I’ve met plenty of awkwardly shaped people in my life—I’m related to some of them—and I can assure you that their natural arm position is very different than my own. It is obviously impossible to scientifically or objectively determine what is a handball: no matter how we parse the rules, or the interpretations of the rules, at the end of the day it is an exercise in human judgment. Without VAR, the referees will have to make a number of difficult handball calls throughout the game; with VAR, the referees still have to do the same thing.

The same logic applies to any foul, such as the falling-backward-but-cleat-stuck-upward clearance attempt. VAR does not even do much to help referees call offsides, which is notoriously tricky to catch in real time: even if VAR can help determine whether a person was in an offsides position when the ball was kicked, it does nothing to decide whether other players in an offsides position were involved in the play (this determination cost Cameroon a goal in the quarterfinals versus England). The only issue that can be determined most of the time with any “scientific” accuracy is judging simply whether the ball has fully crossed the goal line. There is no ambiguity in the rules: all the way over is a goal, not all the way over is not. Only the metaphysicians would disagree, and thankfully they rarely enjoy fun things like sports anyways.

Yet even if only a more “objective” infraction like whether the ball crossed the goal line is subject to VAR review, there are likely myriad other reasons why the goal should be disallowed: when a bunch of awkwardly shaped human beings run at full speed, you are likely to find plenty of actions that are not perfectly in accordance with the rules. Violations of the rules as written are near-incessant, and referees—like any human being in a rule-governed society—are constantly making micro-level judgments of what to call and what to allow. The space between rules as written and human lives as lived is where much of modern life takes place. Other sports implementing video review discovered long ago that true accuracy would render the game simply unplayable; in response, they fashioned new rules to limit the scope of when video review could be used. Yet only sometimes using video review renders any patina of true scientific accuracy farcical.

It may be true that a partial-science is helpful for the overall sport, and sometimes instant replay catches flagrant violations of the rules that referees simply missed. The “assistant” in Video Assistant Referee is supposed to suggest that the video review is a supplement to, not a replacement for, the judgment of the human referee; as VAR supporters might argue, it is merely a source of more information, from which the referee can further exercise their human judgment. But the very act of reviewing a call removes a sense of the natural autonomy of the referee that flows from the pace of the game. Even when there are clear restrictions, as in the case of a goalkeeper leaving the goal line a second before the penalty kick is taken, whether to strictly enforce the “letter of the law” is one of the many judgments that a referee is making throughout the game. The pace of the game, and the human ability to miss things, gives the referee the autonomy to judge how to interpret the rules in the way that keeps the game fair while also proceeding smoothly.

When an incident goes to VAR review, the referee no longer has the autonomy to not make a call, even on the smallest infraction. When the magnifying glass highlights the moment itself, any normal dirt that wouldn’t normally be noticed now sticks out to even the most squalid houseguest. The video “assistant” referee becomes the one who wields the real power, while the referee on the pitch is reduced to a mere assistant. VAR takes away the ability of the referee to not make calls, and forces them to enforce a certain vision of soccer as a pedantic game in which the rules are the letter of the law.

Even FIFA had to acknowledge that such a vision of soccer is untenable: if the rules are sacrosanct, and any small infringement of them must be penalized, what explanation is there for rewriting the rules in the middle of the tournament? FIFA officials are shifting power away from individual referees and toward themselves, a group of managers sitting in executive offices. They are claiming the power to make judgments about which rules should be enforced, and which should be ignored, rather than leaving that judgment to the referee on the field.

What VAR has done, then, is feed into the illusion that we can eliminate human error. It obscures the fact that behind VAR is still human judgment. Someone is looking at that screen and making a judgment call, or pushing us to play by the rules and then changing them to fit their vision. Instead of that person running around the pitch, the person exercising the power of their judgment is behind a screen somewhere in the bowels of the stadium, or cheering in a business suit from a well-manicured suite high above the action. Human judgment can be obscured but not eliminated; power can be put behind closed doors and taken away from the man or woman in uniform, but it can never be given to some fanciful idea of human-free science.

The problem with shifting power from the referee to external FIFA referee teams or officials is not that the referee is sacrosanct or particularly good at their job. The problem lies in the private, opaque nature of the power of VAR. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a fierce critic of scientists, saw a similar issue among 18th century proponents of the scientific method. As Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin explain in Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Hobbes’s problem with Robert Boyle’s experiments about vacuums was in the anti-democratic nature of scientific fact-making. Boyle claimed scientific facts when multiple different scientists could agree that experimental evidence showed a fact, but Hobbes saw the use of fancy experiments as a way of monopolizing authority in the hands of a small group of private scientists. No regular person could have access to the complex laboratories where experiments took place; the result was that the determination of what was a fact and what was not became separated from the people at large.

Hobbes’s critique is relevant to modern soccer: the presence of the referee on the field, at the very least, is a public spectacle, taking place in the open and for all to see. We, the participants and viewers, agree to entrust to the referee the task of adjudicating this game to the best of their ability, despite knowing that some bad calls might be made. VAR, on the other hand, exists in private; it takes the power away from the open pitch and into the background, where secret determinations are made. Sometimes these will be based on more evidence than the existing claim. But the agreement is broken; the power invested in the referee is fatally reduced; and what is left is, more often than not, a set of private, unaccountable actors, hidden behind the smokescreen of technology, enforcing their own human judgments onto those of everyone else.

The technocratic vision is often ensconced in good intentions, and the introduction of VAR to the game of soccer is no exception. We have failed again, however, to think through the limits of technology as applied to the human endeavor, whether it is flourishing in society or trying to clear the ball out of your own 18-yard box. Technology does not reduce the need for individual judgment, it merely shifts it, often from out in the open to somewhere in the shadows. The struggle to balance the power that comes from science, advanced technology, or a claim to specialized knowledge of some sort is among the questions lurking behind modern society since the time of Hobbes, Boyle, and the air-pump experiments. The result of trying to replace humans with technology, as we have seen in this year’s Women’s World Cup, is something that feels distinctly inhuman.