The English football season is only a few weeks old, yet it would surely already prove difficult for last weekend to be topped in the controversy stakes.
In the men’s game, Liverpool were left fuming when the video assistant referee failed to overturn an incorrect decision to disallow a Luis Diaz goal for offside with the match goalless.
Liverpool went on to lose the game at Tottenham Hotspur 2-1. “Sporting integrity has been undermined,” they complained in a subsequent statement, in which they vowed to “explore the range of options available given the clear need for escalation and resolution”.
VAR appeared to find itself in football’s crosshairs yet again. The former Premier League title-winner Micah Richards urged the English top flight to scrap VAR entirely, while The Athletic columnist Alan Shearer, speaking on the BBC, said: “Trust is going to be a big thing going forward.”
And yet, in the women’s game, an entirely different debate was raging.
On Sunday, during Chelsea’s home match against Tottenham, officials failed to spot the ball had crossed the line when Guro Reiten looked to have put Chelsea 2-0 up. With no goal-line technology or VAR in the Women’s Super League, the goal was not given.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes was understandably incandescent, saying it is “ludicrous” and “embarrassing” that there is no VAR in women’s football. Chelsea won the game 2-1.
So, is that likely to change? Why has the women’s game been so slow to adopt VAR? And could the relentless negativity emanating from men’s football in any way influence any future decision to implement it? We explain all below.
What happened over the weekend?
Strap yourself in, this is going to be a bumpy ride.
The controversy started in north London when Diaz’s goal was disallowed for offside after the VAR, Darren England, failed to overturn the incorrect on-field decision.
PGMOL, the body in charge of match officials, said the decision to disallow the goal was “a significant human error”. Liverpool countered by saying their explanation was “unacceptable” and called for a “review with full transparency”.
The VAR officials were stood down from duty for the rest of the weekend.
But the opposite argument was raging in the WSL after Reiten was not awarded a goal for her strike against Spurs. “I want to know: why are we not investing in it (technology)?” Hayes told Sky Sports after the game. “That has to be put to the board who make the decisions. It’s embarrassing.
“Everyone knew in the stadium it had gone in. Fair enough, there could be a human error, but that’s what VAR is for, but I probably shouldn’t say that after Tottenham vs Liverpool yesterday!”
« I want to know why are we not investing in [VAR] it? » 🤔
Emma Hayes reacts after Lauren James wasn’t awarded a goal after her shot appeared to have crossed the line 👇 pic.twitter.com/GGShuc7n9u
— Sky Sports WSL (@SkySportsWSL) October 1, 2023
Is Hayes the only one campaigning for VAR in women’s football?
No. The recent women’s international window was blighted by poor refereeing decisions and an argument over VAR.
England fell to a 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands in which Lyon midfielder Danielle van de Donk was clearly offside for the Dutch opener, much to the frustration of England’s coach and players.
England captain Millie Bright said it was “mindblowing” that VAR was not in use for the Nations League games, while her manager, Sarina Wiegman, lamented “it was so obvious it was offside”.
But the shoe was on the other foot when Scotland forward Martha Thomas appeared to be fouled in the box by Bright during England’s 2-1 Nations League victory on September 22.
“I was more annoyed when I watched it back,” Thomas, who plays for Tottenham, said. “There’s a lot of question marks about that. It would have been nice to have VAR in the game if we can get some consistency of when VAR are there, I don’t think challenges like that are happening.”
What are the arguments against using VAR in women’s football?
There is no consensus on whether or not women’s football should adopt VAR and many of the arguments against the technology involve cost.
For starters, it’s not cheap: the cost of implementing VAR at 12 Scottish Premiership grounds in the men’s game during the second half of the 2022-23 season was around £1.2million.
The WSL also has 12 teams and all of them have very modest budgets when compared to top-flight men’s teams, leading some to speculate that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The standard of refereeing in women’s football is often criticised and the money could be spent on improving on-pitch officials instead of investing in technology. A number of teams also groundshare, leading to potential disputes over who should foot the bill for VAR.
Sporting integrity is another key strand to the debate. If Chelsea were to use VAR at Kingsmeadow or Stamford Bridge, for example, but Brighton were unable to at Crawley Town’s stadium, then the integrity of the WSL would be compromised. It is difficult to see how that would be permitted.
Plus, as the Premier League demonstrated this weekend, VAR is hardly fault-free. Is it really worth the money?
Lowri Roberts is head of women and girls’ football for the Football Association of Wales. Like many, Roberts agrees VAR would significantly improve the women’s game, particularly at international level, but she is also torn on whether or not it is worth the cash.
“Is that the best use of money for us to develop, professionalise and grow the game? Or could that kind of level of funding go into something that could make a bigger impact on the wider development and growth of the game?” she tells The Athletic.
Another aspect is the refereeing pathway and how it could be potentially stunted by a lack of VAR in certain countries and leagues. If referees want to officiate at the top level – at a World Cup, for example – then in order to do so they would need to be experienced in working the technology before getting that opportunity.
Are there solid plans for VAR in women’s football?
There are no concrete plans in place as of yet.
At the start of September, Chelsea ran a VAR test at Kingsmeadow for their friendly against Roma – it was the first of its kind at a WSL ground.
Baroness Sue Campbell, the director of women’s football for the FA, said after the test that VAR “has to come in”, but was unable to provide any timescale for its adaptation.
“We’ve tried VAR-lite, which means less cameras,” she said.
“The reality is, the infrastructure isn’t there for a lot of teams. You’re talking about a huge investment. I do think at the end of the day, it has to come in. And so we’ve just got to find a way through it. But I can’t give a timescale on that.”
So what women’s competitions already use VAR?
VAR was first rolled out at the Women’s World Cup in 2019. It was subsequently used at the European Championship in 2022 and a 19-strong video refereeing team — which included six women — were sent to Australia and New Zealand in the summer to cover the 2023 World Cup.
In March, the National Women’s Soccer League became the first domestic league to use VAR.
In May, VAR was used in the women’s FA Cup final at Wembley for the first time. It was also used in the women’s Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Rangers at Hampden Park.
There are growing calls for women’s football to adopt VAR at the same time it is being castigated in the men’s game. In the 2022 Asian Cup, VAR was used from the quarter-final stage onwards.
VAR was used in the women’s Champions League finals from 2019 and last season it was used from the quarter-final stage.
Is it only women’s football that doesn’t use VAR?
No. VAR might be used in the Premier League, but the Championship, League One and League Two are yet to use it.
It is used in the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League. This season, UEFA has said an additional 239 matches will use VAR across men’s European competitions.
But even though the majority of Europe’s top leagues use VAR, it remains sporadic in its use in leagues below the respective top flights.
(Top photo: Grant Down/AFP via Getty Images)
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