This article originally appeared in Future Sport magazine. Read the 2020 edition here.

When the back pass rule was introduced in the early 1990s its purpose was to eradicate the negative football that was staining the game and to prevent goalkeepers holding on to the ball for minutes at a time. Very quickly it worked, fans were happy and the game has since gone on to reach stratospheric heights.

If only the same could be said for the video assistant referee, otherwise known as VAR. After spending years being told it was living in the dark ages, football finally succumbed and allowed the use of video technology in 2016.

Its first truly global run out was at the FIFA World Cup in 2018 where it was largely seen as a success. Then after being trialled in the FA Cup, VAR was introduced to the Premier League at the start of the 2019/20 season. This is where it gets tricky.

If the purpose of VAR was to remove controversy from the game and stop the what-aboutery among fans, players and media, it hasn’t worked. And despite initially an almost collective agreement among these groups that technology would only aid the game, right now all would say that just isn’t the case. Ever-changing handball and offside laws certainly don’t help, but at its essence football is a simple sport. Are we now overcomplicating it?

“The biggest issue for the football fan seems to be that if you obey all the rules you miss all the fun,“ says UCFB coaching academic Dominic Haynes. “The removal of hairline offside goals and dodgy penalties stops those who don’t know the laws of the game debating their opinions over a pint in the pub.”

Then of course there is the emotion of the sport. The feeling when your team scores is hard to beat, but when it needs to be checked by VAR – as all major incidents do – the pause button has to be pressed on celebrating. Remove this emotion from the game and suddenly the Premier League isn’t the global, full-stadium bonanza it currently is.

“Sport’s unique feature is its unpredictability”, ESPN commentator Jon Champion explains to Future Sport. “I love human frailty and that’s why I’ve got mixed feelings on VAR at the moment because it removes some of that.”

YouTube video

As one of the game’s great orators, Champion has seen every emotion at all levels of the game. So with caution, he urges: “The great sports are the ones that become a nation’s conversation and there’s no more conversational sport than football. I just wonder that if we start to sanitise that then some of it will go.”

The man in charge of VAR in the Premier League, Neil Swarbrick, gave the system a “seven out of ten” when asked how it was going in November. Unlike other competitions, referees have decided to not use pitch side monitors, and this is causing “sheer panic” among those running VAR during games according to BBC pundit Chris Sutton.

For Haynes though, it’s simple; fans must stop their moaning and get on with it. He added: “The options here are learn the laws and abide by them, or don’t participate. At the start of every season, clubs, managers and teams make this choice. It’s time fans did too.”