Editor's note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote during the 2019 World Cup, which has since been lost to digital entropy. But with VAR back in the Olympic tournament, it seemed like a good moment to resurface this piece. The content has been slightly tweaked to update the references.
For centuries, referees have freely used discretion to guide outcomes. The arrival of VAR has forced a rapid transition to a strict rule-based system. The problem: soccer's rules lack the clarity and precision necessary to function in this new world order.
When agrarian societies transition to industrial ones, they often find themselves struggling badly to adapt to a world which contains technology far beyond the scale of what their institutions were designed to accommodate. Systems that worked fine on an informal basis are suddenly exposed to a level of scrutiny and detail that they simply can’t manage. Norms that helped everyone sort things out through rough consensus are obliterated as hyper-technical companies (and the lawyers they hire) carve them to bits.
Soccer is going through a similar transition. And it’s been rough.
The problem has been created by the adoption of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. But the problem isn't necessarily VAR itself, but rather the way VAR interacts with a system of rules designed for a different world.
Soccer is a common law system, and it’s not equipped for the precision of VAR
For 150 years, soccer has been regulated more through feel than through a strict application of the rules. Referees exercise a great deal of discretion, which often produces different calls in different games, based on what seems appropriate in context. That can be frustrating for viewers and players, for obvious reasons, and that frustration has driven us toward standardization and systematic implementation. But the result has been problematic because, to be blunt, soccer’s rules don’t really make any sense. They work as guidelines to instruct the referee, but depend pretty heavily on a solid dose of common sense.
In legal terms, soccer has been a common law system, with referees as judges granted discretion to mete out justice under the broad rules handed down. There are certain things that are hard and immutable. But for the most part, the individual could measure out the rules as seemed appropriate based on their feel of the game.
Suddenly, however, the world has changed. We’re no longer in a common law system with rough justice meted out by a roving judge. Now we’re in a statutory world of strict technicalities and millimeters, with contentious plays assessed in frame-by-frame analyses. In the old world, referees would generally try to apply the vague and confusing rules in a way that broadly made sense, and then would get on with things. In this brave new world, that’s not an option.
That means we now need to go back and reconsider what these rules are actually for, and whether they can possibly achieve their objectives as currently formulated.
VAR is forcing us to reconsider the rules for penalties and offside calls
In the 2019 World Cup, several matches hinged on contentious penalty calls. The first case came in France’s match against Norway, when France earned a decisive penalty after Ingrid Engen was spotted with her cleat pressed firmly into Marion Torrent’s knee, after she followed through on a kick.
To many, this was an injustice, albeit one that appeared to be correct according to the rules. After all, Engen had ‘gotten the ball’ and merely clipped Torrent after. ‘Are defenders not supposed to follow through?’ was the common refrain.
But by the laws of the game, there is nothing surprising here. Getting the ball has never been a defense against dangerous play, and putting your cleats into someone’s knee is a foul. However, for centuries, we’ve operated in a world where ‘that would be a foul anywhere else on the pitch’ has been an ubiquitous cliché. Technically, many plays in the penalty area were fouls, but referees simply didn’t call them. We all knew it. You could get away with more in the box than you could outside it.
With VAR, however, the rough and tumble flow of the game – and the vague sense of discretion employed by the referee – has been replaced by a strict enforcement of the rules.
Is that good or bad? I would argue that it’s good. Defending should be hard. It’s extremely difficult to score goals, and we don’t need to make it even harder by giving defenders special rights to commit challenges in the box that would be whistled anywhere else. The purpose of the rule about the penalty box is to shape behavior, and giving referees an additional tool to accomplish that objective seems like a clear good.
Will strict enforcement of this rule produce more penalties? In the short run, yes. But in the long run, players will adapt, and the game will be better for it.
But this brings us to the second case, which came in Australia’s comeback win over Brazil. Here, the deciding goal was an own goal, which was authorized by VAR based on a bizarre claim that Sam Kerr was not influencing play by being in an offside position since she did not attempt to play the ball, or interfere physically with the defender who was trying to play the ball. But why was Monica trying to play the ball? Because she knew Kerr was behind her! If the point of the offside rule is to ensure that attacking players can’t gain an advantage by being in an illegal position, the rule completely broke down in this case. I have looked at the rules (such as they are) and it’s possible that this is a literally correct decision. But it’s certainly not clear, because the rules are vague and confusing.
Once again, people asked: what are defenders supposed to do? Faced with a split-second decision, they are expected to assess whether the attacker (who is behind them) was offside when the ball was played, and if so, let the ball go and hope they were right? Or they can play the ball, and thus reward the opposition for having been offside. It’s utter nonsense and a total perversion of what the offside rule is supposed to do.
The rules of soccer are shockingly vague
People who know the laws of the game all seem to agree that this really is the rule (and I believe them). That said, they have a hard time pointing to where exactly in the laws this is specified, because the laws of soccer are rather shockingly ill-defined. Compare the offside rule – the most complex law in the game – to any random section of the Major League Baseball rulebook, and you’ll see what I mean.
Here’s an example of how baseball’s rules are written:
5.09 Making an Out
(a) Retiring the Batter
A batter is out when:
(1) His fair or foul fly ball (other than a foul tip) is legally caught by a fielder;
Rule 5.09(a)(1) Comment: A fielder may reach into, but not step into, a dugout to make a catch, and if he holds the ball, the catch shall be allowed. A fielder, in order to make a catch on a foul ball nearing a dugout or other out-of-play area (such as the stands), must have one or both feet on or over the playing surface (including the lip of the dugout) and neither foot on the ground inside the dugout or in any other out-of-play area. Ball is in play, unless the fielder, after making a legal catch, steps or falls into a dugout or other out-of-play area, in which case the ball is dead. Status of runners shall be as described in Rule 5.06(b)(3)(C) Comment.
A catch is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught.
That’s one section of one subpoint of Rule 5.09. There are 14 more points under 5.09(a). There’s also a 5.09(b), 5.09(c), 5.09(d), and 5.09(e). And it goes on and on like this for hundreds of pages.
Soccer’s rulebook is nothing like this. What are the rules for added time? The referee adds some time. You know, however much they think is appropriate. What are the rules for throw-ins? They should take place roughly where the ball went out, more or less. Except when they don’t and it’s not worth arguing. Is it a foul to clatter a player after the ball has been kicked? Yes, of course it is (but let's all pretend to forget that if the foul was inside the box and would generate a penalty). And on and on.
If VAR is here to stay, the rules are going to need a significant overhaul
The laws of soccer are full of vaguely defined principles that are designed to give the referee the ability to guide the game. They very much do not provide universal criteria for guaranteeing that the principles can be achieved. As a result, they are exceptionally ill-designed to handle the level of precision and objectivity that VAR is meant to bring.
This isn’t a problem with the rules per se, nor a problem with VAR as such. It’s a problem with the combination. And it’s something that’s going to have to be fixed, with more than a few minor clarifications.
Ultimately, the purpose of a law is to produce a desired result. If VAR is the new way of life, we’re going to need a significant overhaul of the rules, to bring them in line with a world of minute attention to detail and objective judgments. The key question: what is a rule actually meant to accomplish, and can it do so if enforced in these new terms?
Alternatively, we could all decide to simply accept that soccer is a game with ill-defined rules that can never be perfectly enforced. After watching VAR in action for a few years, my vote is solidly for scrapping the dream of precision and getting on with the beautiful game. Sadly, that probably is impossible. So we're just going to have to get used to this brave new world.