Great VAR debate comes to SA

Last week, South African Football Association (Safa) president Danny Jordaan released a video declaring the intent to introduce the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) into domestic football. The technology has dominated the global football debate since the 2018 World Cup and South Africa will be no exception— after all, we’ve already begun arguing.

Every passing week, as refereeing mistakes increasingly come under the spotlight, there are calls for the use of the VAR. But what the editorials accusing the Premier Soccer League (PSL) of dragging its feet fail to appreciate is that it is not a matter of flicking a switch. Intensive administrative and structural processes must first be undertaken. Jordaan estimates that the soonest we’ll see the full implementation of the VAR is 2022 — a timeline in keeping with international examples.

The person who will inevitably help us walk this journey is Jerome Damon, Fifa’s referee development officer for Africa.

He explains: “You want to make sure that everyone is 120% ready, because you want the product to work the first time around for people to buy into it and not create a negative attitude towards it if people create mistakes with the system. So better to take your time than to rush and make an absolute mess of it.”

Damon was coaxed out of his Cape Town teaching position of 17 years last April when he was offered the chance to take up his new job, one he shares alongside Athanase Nkubito of Rwanda.

Retired as a referee in 2014, Damon had built a fearsome reputation for fairness and consistency and was selected to officiate in multiple high-profile tournaments, including four Africa Cup of Nations and the 2010 World Cup.

His job takes him to the 54 members in the confederation to ensure other officiating structures develop to a similar standard. He also happens to be the VAR training instructor and will be an integral factor if and when any federation under his jurisdiction wants to introduce the system. When Safa formally registers its interest, Damon will probably be the one tasked with ensuring the media and clubs, in addition to the officials, are suitably educated.

“We’ve got the stadia, we’ve got the broadcasters that are capable of giving us all the angles that are required,” he says when asked how well positioned South Africa is to begin the VAR process. “There are service providers currently in South Africa involved with other sports that certainly know how the system works and so it’s a matter of linking all of that and getting the timeline set up — the longest time is certainly the training of match officials.”

The early steps required to start the VAR transition have been taken. The PSL first had to decide if it wanted to use the system (Fifa does not demand that its members take it up). As indicated by chairperson Irvin Khoza late last year, that decision has been taken and relayed to Safa, which has now announced its intent.

The next move would be to formally send a request to the International Football Association Board (IFAB). From there, the IFAB will begin working through its checklist to ensure the necessary technological capabilities are in place. Only once all the boxes have been ticked and officials are sufficiently trained can the league begin testing the technology in a slow roll-out. It’s pure speculation at this point but the senior trials will probably begin during the last few rounds of a competition such as the Nedbank Cup or a similar knockout competition.

Before Khoza had signalled the PSL’s intent, acting chief executive Mato Madlala had tried to stall the tide of calls for the VAR by suggesting that the lack of ownership of stadiums by football clubs would be a major stumbling block. But with the possibility of setting up the VAR studio away from the grounds of any given match, that shouldn’t be an issue.

“If South Africa is going towards that, I would certainly suggest they investigate a centralised VAR venue as opposed to localising it in stadia which is very expensive,” Damon says. “For me the more cost-effective and practical solution would be a centralised solution. And there are various spots across South Africa … off the top of my head I can think of the broadcast centre at Nasrec, which has all the infrastructure to accommodate a VAR setup.”

However Safa and the PSL decide to proceed, there is no denying that a significant outlay will be required to establish and maintain the new sysstem. Exact figures are impossible to draw up, but various reports suggest the VAR costs most other leagues in the region of R100-million a season. Emboldened by new R1-billion revenues, it would appear that’s an amount the PSL is happy to live with.

Where it will end up facing the most pushback is probably on the field itself.

“I think we’re jumping the gun,” former PSL referee and administrator Ace Ncobo says after a long sigh. “I think we’re just following a trend, the real value of which has not really been proven. I do think we’re responding to the public outcry — every time there’s an incident, everybody shouts: ‘VAR, VAR!’

“I think it takes away a whole lot from the game … stoppage time, breaking the rhythm of the players; I don’t like it. It takes away the spontaneity that football has always been known for.”

Ncobo is not someone one would expect to ally himself to a Safa cause, but on this issue he most certainly does not stand alone. European audiences are quickly growing tired of the sight of players ambling towards the touchline to tentatively celebrate, dreading that the video gods will rule out their effort.

More and more, the referee appears beholden to the input of those watching above him — a surreal sight in a sport that successfully resisted the use of any technological assistance until the past decade. Football is an artform, whereas the presence of the VAR to a certain extent rests on the premise that it can be distilled into a science.

One of the biggest fears is that if the Europeans are troubled by it, just how are frenetic locals going to digest the new stoppages in play?

“You see already with the introduction of many European coaches who bring in their rigid, almost textbook style of playing football, there’s a huge dilution of the unique South African style,” Ncobo says.

“When you take away or reduce the entertainment value of any sport, you’re cheating the consumers of the product. Unlike other countries that are suffering under the burden of [the] VAR, South Africa will be even worse off because it’s got a unique style of play. There’s a way that we enjoy football — a particular brand of football we enjoy.”

Jerome Damon, Fifa’s referee development officer in Africa, may assist in introducing the VAR system. (Lefty Shivambu/Gallo)

Ncobo points out that there are other options we’re seemingly ignoring in favour of the VAR, one being goal line technology, an instrument that has made its way into most major leagues but not the 

PSL. There’s also the possibility of adding two extra goal line assistants as we used to see in the Champions League.

If there’s one thing that Damon and Ncobo agree on, it’s that the PSL can under no circumstance replicate the Premier League’s model of the VAR. The former, usually so composed in his conversation, can’t help but express his resentment with how the competition has flouted the IFAB guidelines.

When the system arrived in England at the start of the season, the decision was made to ditch the pitch side monitor that referees are intended to revert to should a check be required. Instead, the official in the VAR seat, who is by definition an assistant, makes the call and essentially instructs the referee on what action to take. To former referees like Damon and Ncobo, there could be no greater sacrilege.

The specificities of South Africa’s adoption of the technology is something we’ll only find out in time. It’s going to be a long two or so years, filled with moaning and debate. We might as well strap in: we appear stuck on this ride whether we like it or not.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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