Controversial VAR Decisions in Football

Oyebade Oluwafemi
17 Apr 2024

If you've been keeping track of things, you'll notice that VAR — or Video Assistant Referee was brought into the beautiful game around 2010-ish. The idea? To cut down on errors made by humans in real-time during games and guide refs to make top-notch decisions. FIFA jumps right into four core areas where VAR is helpful: they cover goals and what leads up to them, rule on penalties (and offenses related), make sure direct red card incidents are handled properly, and sort out cases if any player gets wrongly identified. Even with these cool technologies thrown in; soccer gods still frown upon occasional officiating slip-ups or calls missed altogether in different sporting events across the globe. Such glitches have led diehard football fans scratching their heads about possible ways forward using VAR technology, mainly focusing on English Premier League action.

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In this article:

  • What is VAR?
  • PROS of VAR
  • CONS of VAR
  • Top Controversial VAR Decisions in Football
  • What People Think Of VAR?
  • Conclusion: Is VAR Ruining Football?

VAR has become a guide and supporter for referees in football games. Through using the videos and the technical software from the sidelines, the main referee on-field will be able to make instant decisions on whether a goal counts, if a penalty or a red card is necessary, whether a goal shouldn't be awarded, if a penalty is not given, or whether a player is not sent off. They will even make sure that the referee doesn't mix up players at times. The VAR staff consistently identifies referee errors or potential oversights. Eventually, VAR's role is to ensure the fairness of the game. It has an extensive means of technology to support the referees by providing them with a source of extra information so that they can make more qualified decisions.

Improved AccuracyVAR aims to reduce obvious errors in critical decisions by providing video replays to assist referees.
FairnessEnhances the integrity of the game by ensuring that correct decisions are made based on video evidence.
Goal Line TechnologyAssists in determining whether the ball has crossed the goal line accurately, reducing controversies.
Disruption to FlowDelays in decision-making can disrupt the flow and excitement of the game, affecting the overall rhythm.
SubjectivityInterpretation of VAR decisions can be subjective, leading to controversies over the application of rules.
Unresolved IssuesDespite VAR intervention, some key decisions remain contentious, causing ongoing debate and frustration.
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Tottenham 2-1 Brighton (2022/23 Season)

In April 2023, the PGMOL acknowledged that Brighton should have been awarded a penalty against Spurs. Howard Webb, representing PGMOL, apologized to the club for failing to award a penalty when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg fouled Kaoru Mitoma. However, while an apology acknowledges the mistake, it doesn't grant the team the 3 points they could have earned from a penalty. Mitoma was tripped by Højbjerg inside the penalty box, but referee Stuart Attwell did not notice the foul. Furthermore, the video assistant referee (VAR), Michael Salisbury, did not intervene to overturn Attwell's decision, compounding the error.

Brighton 1-1 Crystal Palace (2023/24 Season)

Brighton's full-back Pervis Estupiñán thought he had scored the opening goal in the derby match against Crystal Palace; however, unfairly, the referee decided to dismiss it as offside. While VAR carried out the standard offside checks, they mistakenly booked with the lines drawn from the wrong Crystal Palace defender, hence Estupiñán being deemed offside when he was onside. The contest finally ended in a 1-1 draw, and you can’t blame Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton's manager, for being fuming when the game ended. Dermot Gallagher spoke from his point of view, and the referee employed the mistake, and an apology was given. He pointed out that, as part of human imperfection, it was natural to make such mistakes, and an apology for the earlier mistake was the need of the hour.

Arsenal 1-1 Brentford (2022/23 Season)

A controversial VAR mistake thwarted Arsenal's efforts to win the Premier League title during the 2022–23 season. The officials at PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) admitted that VAR should not have done a thorough check of offside, as happened with Brentford's equalizer against Arsenal. This is the big picture: In a thrilling and hard-fought game, Brentford tied the score 1-1 against Arsenal. The ball reached Ivan Toney in the Brentford goal after a beautiful pass from Christian Norgaard, who seemed to be ahead by an offside. You see, that small error greatly affected the whole campaign of Arsenal, as they strived really hard to become the champions of the Premier League. First, this incident made Mikel Arteta, Arsenal's manager, upset- and he said that Lee Mason, a VAR official, did his job incorrectly during the public interview.

Tottenham 2-1 Liverpool (2023/24 Season)

The most influential mistake by VAR in English football this season occurred at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Luis Diaz believed he had scored for Liverpool to take the lead, but the assistant referee's flag, claiming an offside before the ball entered the box, ruined the moment. Several replays clearly showed that Diaz's goal was onside, yet the game proceeded due to an incorrect offside decision on the field. The unsatisfactory communication between VAR Darren England and referee Simon Hooper led to a worsening scenario. However, the English referee assumed that the goal had already been allowed and prematurely informed Hooper that the check was complete. The PGMOL apologized immediately after the game, acknowledging that they should not have disallowed Diaz's goal. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool's manager, not only mentioned the idea of a re-play due to the seriousness of this mistake, but he also pointed out that the officials made different decisions.

Japan 2-1 Spain (2022 FIFA World Cup)

During the World Cup 2022 meeting between Japan and Spain, Japan scored a debatable goal in the 51st minute, which, finally, became a pivotal factor. Kaoru Mitoma made a pass to Ao Tanaka, who scored, but there was confusion over whether the ball had gone out of play before Mitoma made a pass or not. The referee initially declared the goal, believing that the ball was still in play and Mitoma had played it inside. On the other hand, after the review, it was clear that the ball could have appeared to be going over the line. This became more complicated later when the FIFA officials provided a TV angle that let everyone see that indeed the ball had gone out of play before Mitoma's pass. Unfortunately, this evidence arrived only after this goal had materially impacted the outcome of the match and knocked Germany out of the World Cup.

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Manchester Derby (2022/23 Season)

Bruno Fernandes' goal in the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City in the 2022–23 season sparked controversy due to Rashford's offside. In the 78th minute of the match, Rashford was about to receive a pass from Casemiro. Manuel Akanji may have felt that Rashford was offside after moving closer to the ball, which kept the defenders in a dilemma. Alternatively, Rashford gave the ball the liberty to pass to Bruno Fernandes, who was in an onside position, and he was the one who scored. The offside rule also states that if a player is in an offside position but does not make a play on the ball or does not interfere with the play, then he is not considered to have committed an offense. Here, Rashford's behavior brought up questions about whether he was off-side enough to be considered interference. While, unfortunately, the goal was considered controversial, VAR further assessed it and only approved it. The goal tied the match, but Manchester United won all three points after scoring another goal to seal the victory.

The English Premier League and the emergence of VAR over the past few years have sparked a lot of discussion about the influence of this technology on football. Referees aren`t included, but former ones now in charge of appointing and assessing Premier League officials, like Howard Webb, have been seen publicly apologizing for VAR mistakes that resulted in wrongful or late decisions.


According to the YouGov survey completed during VAR's introduction in the EPL, the majority (71%) of fans did not believe that VAR influenced the level of fair play. Yet 15% of fans, even though they were willing to support VAR, believed that was against the beliefs of a true football fan. However, it is worth noting that the survey also showed that a majority of fans are against the idea that VAR makes the game slower because 69% of those respondents declared that VAR makes the game slower by at least two-thirds.

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Another study conducted by the FSA in 2021, which involved fans, also brought forth more understanding from fans regarding the matter. On the other hand, the FSA survey, which saw almost 95% of the fans who watched live matches (those who were in stadiums) and 94% who watched TV and received information concerning VAR decisions, harmed the match experience and claimed that VAR was not good for watching games. Also, the fans are not happy because the VAR destroyed the presence of spontaneous fun, which came with scoring a goal. Surprisingly, only 4% of fans of the team they support believed that VAR had a positive effect during a match, while the majority (78%) believed it had a negative impact. Surprisingly, these were the answers that prevailed, since about 59% of the respondents strongly agreed that the referees should be understandable enough to explain their decisions so as not to get confused.

VAR has really shaken things up in football. Its goal is to cut down on mistakes by referees and make the game fairer. But, it's also brought on some headaches and a lot of talking points about how it's changing the sport. All this fuss about VAR shows how tech stuff is always changing the way sports are played and watched. We have to keep tweaking how VAR works so that everyone thinks the game is fair, precise, and still fun to watch.

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