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VAR's English debut brings more uncertainty than clarity

It probably wasn't a handball. Or it might have been. It was difficult to tell. From one angle it looked fine, from another it was possible to see a hint of arm. After watching about 10 replays you could make some pretty strident arguments that the goal shouldn't have been allowed. And some of equal conviction that it was fine.

Welcome to VAR. Or, in this case, not. As Glenn Murray glanced home Brighton's winner in their 2-1 FA Cup win over rivals Crystal Palace, for a moment it looked like we might see the first use of the video assistant referee in England. The ball glanced against his thigh, then possibly brushed his arm on its way into the net, and it looked like controversy was ahoy.

But while there was a brief moment when referee Andre Marriner pressed his finger to his earpiece, like a presidential bodyguard being told that Eagle was on his way, there was no big debut for the latest attempt to make football an objective exercise.

Over at Stockley Park, the Premier League's studios in west London, Neil Swarbrick had taken a quick look at the incident -- as he had 10 others during the game -- and decided there was no need for Marriner to toddle over to a monitor on the touchline and take another look. It was all something of an anti-climax.

Trialled at last summer's Confederations Cup, already in use in Australia, Germany and Italy and set to be rolled out in many more competitions, VAR is football's version of video refereeing technology that other sports have used for years. Rugby League has the video referee, cricket has the video umpire, tennis has Hawkeye.

The big difference is that in those sports, it's clear what is happening to those in the stadium. A well-recognised signal or announcement is made, and everyone present can view the incident in question on a big screen. It's not just transparency but clarity, displaying clearly what the stoppage in play is about and how a decision is being reached. There is still a degree of subjectivity, and not everyone may agree on the conclusion, but at least everyone knows what's going on.

Not in football though, and not on this occasion. The Palace players protested, and thus so did their fans. Roy Hodgson directed some choice words towards the fourth official. Everyone else turned their eyes to Marriner, waiting to see if a television would be required. The goal briefly popped up on the big screen -- long enough for the travelling support to sense there might have been arm involved but not long enough for them to conclusively rule it in or out.

But that was enough for them to implore the officials to take another look. To scream bloody murder that they may have been wronged. To gather a sense of grievance, that they had not only been failed by the officials on the field but by the failsafe designed to correct them.

Andre Marriner
Match referee Andre Marriner didn't need to retreat to the sidelines to review Glenn Murray's goal -- or did he?

After the game, everyone seemed relatively satisfied that the goal was legitimate. Brighton manager Chris Hughton didn't think there was a problem. Murray said he "wasn't sure what it touched, but it wasn't my arm." Hodgson, despite his initial outburst -- "I regret that," he said afterwards -- accepted the goal and thus the defeat.

"We had suspicions at first, fuelled by those close to it," he said. "But having viewed it again, there was still a slight risk it would have brushed his arm, but if it was my player I would have felt very upset if it had been disallowed.

"I have no complaints about that at all."

And yet a kernel of a problem did emerge. There are several potential issues with VAR, from the notion that it will eliminate controversial decisions to the broader, more philosophical idea of whether we really want objectivity, that this is a game played by fallible humans and officiated by similar. There is a certain beauty to that, an imperfection that we can all relate to.

But one of the biggest was shown here, namely the uncertainty within the stadium. With no clear way of communicating to everyone present what was going on, can this really improve certainty in the game?

There was even uncertainty over whether it was actually used. Hughton said he was "under the impression" that it had. Murray had no idea either way. Beyond Marriner raising his hand to his ear, there wasn't much indication for anyone else that anything had been done.

All of this is before we even get to what happens when it is fully used. The general concept is that the men in the studio will take a look at incidents on their screens, and if they believe there is sufficient doubt about a decision they will direct the man on the field to take another look.

That will -- and has, in the places VAR is already in use -- lead to confusing periods of time as everyone stands around as one man watches a TV at the side of the pitch. Not what you would call great theatre.

Rudi Voller, Bayer Leverkusen sporting director, has called it "an extreme atmosphere killer." There are enough problems with the experience of watching live football without adding another layer of disruption to the whole thing.

VAR is a measure designed to reduce uncertainty in the game -- but even when it wasn't fully used on Monday, it managed to create exactly that. Lord knows what will happen when the video assistant referee actually intervenes.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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