VAR here to stay in the A-League, says O’Rourke

Full story first published in SBS’ The World Game:

Australian Professional Leagues Commissioner Greg O’Rourke has indicated that the controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is here to stay, as well as given an insight into the challenges associated with improving the technology.

Becoming the first top-level domestic football league in the world to implement VAR when it was put in place for a round 26 meeting between Melbourne City and Adelaide United during the 2016-17 season, the A-League has a long and not always illustrious history with the technology. 

Accusing the eye in the sky of robbing the game of tempo, emotion and spontaneity, discontent from fans, media, players, and coaches alike has been a near-constant as the technology has continued to not only be used in Australia but rolled out in greater force around the world. 

In 2021, with a few notable exceptions such as the W-League, VAR has become a ubiquitous presence at seemingly every major tournament and in every major league; next set to be rolled out next for the men’s and women’s tournaments at the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

A stringent backer of its use, FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently raised eyebrows when he declared that it “adds another layer of adrenaline” to matches. 

“I think that VAR is giving and bringing more justice to the game,” Infantino said. “It’s making the game more clean, it’s helping the referees in taking correct decisions. If maybe it takes away the joy of some, it gives the joy to others when a decision is changed. So the joy if you win a game is still there. You will not hear me say anything negative about VAR. Justice is everything.”

Australian advocates for the tech’s abandonment were given some cause for optimism when it failed to return for the hub-based run home of the 2019-20 A-League season but were subsequently left disappointed when it made its return for the finals series (used to contentiously deny Harrison Delbridge a goal in the Grand Final) and for the 2020-21 season.

It most recently raised the ire of punters when it took almost four minutes for Adelaide United winger Ben Halloran’s goal against Macarthur FC to be ruled as valid on Wednesday evening. 

“I think it is,” O’Rourke, speaking at a Melbourne Victory ‘Victory in Business’ function, said when asked if the technology was here to stay in the A-League. 

“I think the thing with technology is that it’s different for people. There will be people that have every app that they can get their hands on and there are other people that will love a simpler life.

“The reason people turn to technology is because they want to be better informed and they want to make better decisions – and we’re no different in sport.”

In an effort to soothe tensions, the A-League has, on occasion, offered a peek at the processes involved in adjudicating marginal decisions from a bunker in the past: releasing articles on their website articulating the steps involved and also partnering with Fox Sports to release footage and audio of the process. 

These glimpses behind the curtain – despite the mistaken impression from non-Australian audiences that it is a regular occurrence Down Under – offer a welcome antidote to the opaqueness that normally characterizes VAR’s use. 

According to O’Rourke, the micing of referees so that these videos can become a more regular occurrence is something that the APL has been actively exploring in an effort to improve the technology’s reputation amongst the footballing public. 

However, the league’s commissioner says that these attempts quickly run into the same problems that any other efforts to tinker or reform the VAR do: the A-League, unlike domestic competitors and implementers of technology the AFL or NRL, representing a small fish in a very, very, very large pond. 

“The only challenge for us right now is if we want to improve on [VAR], we need to convince FIFA and IFAB to make that change for over 200 countries,” said O’Rourke. 

“So, we’ve been working with them for a number of years — Australia is a well-known early adopter.

“We’ve picked up the VAR earlier but we also want to go to micing up the referees – we want to do that each and every game. 

“Now that’s been around in sport for decades but the powers that be are still telling us that that’s not possible because they don’t feel confident that they could role it out for 200 plus countries with the sort of confidence that we know that we can have. 

“But I’m really confident we’ll end in a good place with technology just like every other code has.”

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