Penalty or not England vs Denmark was what VAR is supposed to be

If only all VAR decisions could be this efficient

At the end of the day all anyone wants to talk about is one decision.

Nearly 12 minutes into extra time of England’s Euro 2020 semifinal vs Denmark Raheem Sterling carried the ball into the box, got close to two Danish defenders, and went down. The referee pointed to the spot.

If you’re a fan of England, this was an obvious penalty regardless of how soft it is. Contact is contact and a soft penalty is still a penalty.

If you’re a fan of Denmark (or Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and probably Germany) this was clearly a dive and the biggest abomination the sport has ever seen.

We’re not here to talk about whether it was or it wasn’t a penalty. We’re here to talk about the VAR process that happened immediately after the decision.

This decision was a great example of how VAR is supposed to be used, and it was used perfectly. This is what VAR is supposed to be.

VAR has a very love/hate relationship with football fans. They moan about it when it’s used and bemoan it when it’s not available.

Like all penalty decisions, this one was automatically checked by the VAR for any ‘clear and obvious’ error. That phrase is important, extremely important actually. Because what gets lost in all the hoopla is that VAR isn’t necessarily there to get every decision exactly right. It’s just there to fix obvious mistakes.

Here’s what replays showed.

This happened in a weird area of the pitch and because of the body placements, we didn’t get a lot of angles to look at it. It was really just two angles that provided a good view.

One of those angles shows that there’s a little bit of contact. The other one doesn’t. That by very definition is inconclusive evidence that the wrong decision was made.

When VAR was put in, the purpose was to fix ‘clear and obvious’ errors. They made it a point to say “we are not trying to re-referee the game.” The purpose of VAR isn’t to go in there and find out exactly what happened, it’s just to correct egregious errors. If one camera angle backs up what the referee saw but the other one doesn’t, then it’s clearly not an egregious error and you go with the decision on the pitch.

You can’t say this was a clear and obvious error without being biased. If you’re only focusing on the replay that shows no contact, you’re being biased.

By that same token had the referee not given a penalty here VAR wouldn’t - and shouldn’t have - given one. There wouldn’t have been enough evidence to say it’s definitively a penalty either. That’s ok too!

Not every decision is black and white. There’s a reason the phrase “it could go either way” exists. That’s why it’s called a decision.

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That’s what makes the offside checks with the lines so god damn annoying. Offside shift from looking for a ‘clear and obvious error’ to ‘looking to see exactly what happened.’ That’s not the intention of VAR and part of the reason offside checks suck is because we’re looking for reasons to not count a goal rather than looking for reasons for a goal to stand. You have referees for a reason. They’re pretty good at their jobs but they do occasionally get things blatantly wrong. Then and only then should VAR step in.

There’s a human element here and that’s what makes sport sport. If you don’t like that then we should just do away with referees on the pitch and VAR everything. I’d say be careful what you wish for though.

We’ve already seen elements of this happening. The NFL now reviews everything and it makes their games unwatchable. Basketball is the same way. Sometimes in basketball they don’t even make decisions anymore, they just go straight to the monitor to see ‘exactly what happened.’ It’s not needed and ruins the viewing experience for everyone.

Football is the same in some areas. We all complain when they slow things down and take things out of context when looking at potential red cards or fouls in the buildup to goals. That wasn’t the intention of VAR.

That’s what made this such a good application of it. A decision was made, the VAR checked it. One replay showed contact, one didn’t. It wasn’t obviously wrong so you go with the decision the referee made. The entire process took less than a minute.1

If you’re mad that the decision didn’t go your way and feel they should have dove in, taken a closer look, and seen exactly what happened that’s fine. Just don’t complain the next time they’re slowing it down and scrutinizing whether a players studs are up in a challenge or not. That’s the kind of VAR you’re asking for.

I prefer to let the referee referee the game with a small bit of oversight to correct an obvious mistake. That doesn’t mean they’re going to get them all right but that’s fine too. With the amount of decisions a referee makes in one match, getting 99 percent of them correct is pretty damn good.

Too often VAR does go too far. They do try to dive in and see exactly what happened when the play was close enough to just stick with the original decision. There’s no harm in saying ‘we’re not sure he’s right but there’s not enough proof to definitively say he’s wrong.’

This wasn’t one of those times. This was the way VAR is supposed to be used.



And let’s be honest, if a ‘clear and obvious’ error was made, it should take under 30 seconds to spot that. If we have to scrutinize a replay 10 times then it’s not ‘clear and obvious.’ 1% of decisions will be wrong. I can live with that.