The politics of VAR

Paul Cotterill
4 min readNov 11, 2019

As a Blackpool supporter [1] I tend not to may much attention to Premier League football, but even I’ve noticed that there are concerns about what the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is doing to the integrity and spectacle of the beautiful game in its highest echelon: long delays, supporters in the ground in the dark as to what’s going on, and an overall growing sense that, not only is the referee a wanker — that’s written in footballing stone — but that the whole thing is also incompetently and even corruptly run, especially on the weeks VAR doesn’t go your team’s way.

There is a fairly obvious solution. Football should adopt rules for the use of VAR based on cricket’s use of Hawkeye, then expand on them to make the game more strategic.

1/ The ‘triggering’ of VAR should lie with neither the referee nor those looking at screens in the control box, but with the teams themselves. Each team should have one (perhaps two) VAR uses, which they are able to trigger within 15 seconds of an alleged on-field referee mistake.

2/ Provision will be made along the sidelines of the pitch for a team’s selected VAR specialist to run up and down in line with play, so as to gain the best vantage point, and s/he will carry the device that triggers the VAR and allows the referee to bring a game to a halt at the earliest opportunity.

3/ VAR will then adjudicate. If the case is won, the team’s VAR use remains. If it fails, that use is lost, and even the most obvious mistake by the referee will not be corrected. (For a comparison, see the Australian decision to gamble on an obviously not-out LBW in the epic Headingley test of this summer, only to have that come back and bite them next over with no appeal left on an LBW that was very out.)

4/ A ‘triggering’ of VAR after the 15 second deadline (as adjudicated by VAR) should result in a red card for a team’s VAR specialist.

Those would be the basic rules. The consequences of a shift to team-triggered VAR on a limited use basis would, I suggest, have very beneficial impacts.

First, the quality and therefore selection of (and soon transfer market) VAR specialists would become an integral part of the top tier game, creating sporting interest of itself. Alongside the individual selection interest, a whole new area of football strategy about when and wether to trigger VAR would add to intrigue, as teams decide whether to risk a VAR in the third minute, or whether to go with a late one in desperation — the VAR equivalent of sending the goalkeeper up for a late corner.

Second, and more importantly, putting the onus on teams to decide when and how to use VAR would, as it has in cricket (albeit from a different starting place) generate respect for referees, as mistakes become distributed and understanding of how difficult these immediate judgments are becomes more widespread; in turn this would create healthier attitudes towards refereeing in the non-elite ranks (my 20 year old might still be refereeing if he’d not been called a speccie twat etc. etc. when refereeing under 9 games as a 14 year old).

And as with football, so with politics.

At the heart of what I’m proposing for football is the Habermasian ideal of a polity, where the ‘rules of the game’ are developed by consent and its consequent administration, while delegated in such a way that people can get on with their lifeworlds, remains open to constructive critique and reform.

Just as umpires now make better front foot LBW decisions because the combination of Hawkeye technology and the rules for its use has helped them develop their three-dimensional spatial sense while not fostering doubts about their integrity, so too can football develop norms for active participation in a way which enhances the sense of integrity in the game and allows a culture of respect to flow right through to people’s mini-league lifeworlds and beyond, into post-footie households less prey to systemic anti-ref (aka. mum) aggression.

And if that can happen in football, it might even happen to our politics. If, through the kind of constitutional convention that will be proposed io Labour’s forthcoming manifesto, we can develop processes of participation under conditions of equality of voice in that public space, we can concomitantly develop political institutions increasingly used to the idea that what were once the ‘ referee’s a wanker’-style abuse, and therefore less prone to hiding in the control rooms of state, twiddling the knobs and hoping the on-field referee makes it to the changing rooms unscathed.


[1] In fact I found myself losing touch with football entirely through the period when I was unable to express active support for a club owned and milked by a rapist. I still kept an eye on results, I’ll admit, but it’s great to be able to take an overt interest again.



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.