Bundesliga VAR: Controversial, Unloved, But Here To Stay

It is safe to say that first season of the Video Assistant Referee being used in the Bundesliga has provided plenty of talking points, caused plenty of controversy, and produced plenty of drama. The theory behind the technology is well-intentioned, but that hasn’t stopped the use of the ‘eye in Köln’ being regularly lambasted throughout the 2017-18 season, by those on the wrong end of awkward decisions.

However, VAR looks like it is very much here to stay, particularly with the release of two sets of figures recently. DFB referee’s chief Lutz Michael Fröhlich gave an interview to Kicker Sportmagazin in which he claimed that VAR had corrected 80% of the wrong decisions made last season and that overall 65 incorrect decisions were overturned by the Virtual Assistant Referee.

“I would classify it so that the project in the second half of the year has developed well due to fewer interventions and a much lower error rate, but we have to continue working on it” he explained.

“Of course, the main goal remains that the referees make little or no mistakes on the field, and then the video assistants do not have to intervene” Fröhlich added. “That would be the best case.”

The referees’ chief admitted there had been 16 incorrect decisions that had not been overturned by the use of VAR.

In a separate Kicker survey, 248 Bundesliga players were asked their opinion on the use of video technology and 57.6% revealed they supported its continuation with 33.6% wanting to see it scrapped (8.8% did not respond either way). The professionals however want to see improvements with 76.9% of respondents claiming that VAR was ‘poorly implemented’.

There were always going to be teething problems and clearly not everyone was going to get on board with the introduction of an alien concept. Fröhlich and the Bundesliga pros have both spoken of the need to improve and in its second season, you’d expect fewer controversies and a smoother running of the whole concept.

But the controversies of this season are very much in fans’ minds still as they come to terms with their team’s final league position with some having more reason that others to bemoan the use of VAR.

The 2017-18 VAR season

Matchday 1 brought more than a little chaos with three stadiums suffering technical difficulties meaning the on-field referee had no contact with Köln. Some games were using VAR, others not, the issue of equality was there from the very start.

Matchday 4 saw an instant when VAR was not consulted, when in hindsight it probably should have been. The then boss of the VAR system Helmut Krug confessed that referee Guido Winkmann should have referred Coen Casteels challenge on VfB Stuttgart’s Christian Gentner for a penalty/ red card. Winkmann waved play on, despite Gentner suffering multiple broken facial bones.

The same weekend saw Köln fans and official is uproar as they conceded a controversial goal to Borussia Dortmund, which wasn’t disallowed. When Sokratis challenged keeper Timo Horn referee Patrick Ittrich seemed to blow his whistle for a foul, only to be informed by Felix Brych that it wasn’t a foul. Dortmund duly put the ball in the net to make it 2-0 with Köln players claiming they had stopped after the original whistle. Bizarre!

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Matchday 5 saw Bayern Munich profit in their clash with Schalke with VAR determining that Naldo had handled in the area to block a James cross. The original decision from Marco Fritz of a corner was changed to a penalty and Bayern duly scored.

Matchday 8 had Köln once again the ‘victims’ of VAR as they were denied a late penalty, which would have seen them pick up their first win of the season. Benjamin Cortus looked to have awarded the Geißböcke a 91st penalty, only to change his mind after over four minutes of deliberation with the replays. To add insult to injury Stuttgart then went and scored a 94th minute winner of their own. Ouch!

Matchday 24 witnessed the other side to be relegated, Hamburg, on the receiving end of VAR’s decision. The Nordderby with rivals Werder looked to be heading towards a 0-0 draw and an important point for HSV. Werder’s 86th minute winner had Rothosen players and fans screaming for an off-side and a foul on Rick van Drongelen, but VAR was not to rescue them, much to their disgust.

Matchday 30 however saw the mother of all VAR controversies when Mainz were awarded a penalty in their relegation six-pointer with Freiburg. Referee Guido Winkmann had already taken the players off down the tunnel for half-time when he was informed by Bibiana Steinhaus in Köln, that he had missed a handball and therefore a penalty for Mainz.  Despite all players having left the pitch, Winkmann brought them out again for Pablo De Blasis to take the retrospective spot-kick which he scored- a full seven minutes after the ‘end’ of the first-half!

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There were also controversial developments off the field with VAR project manager Helmut Krug sacked in November for ‘influencing the decision of the VAR in a manner not befitting his role’. We also saw revelation that the parameters were changed after the first few weeks expanding VAR’s role beyond the four instances (goals, penalties, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity) it was originally tasked with.

Then the DFB effectively gagged Manuel Gräfe, after he criticised the whole workings of VAR, by threatening to demote him as a Bundesliga official.

We thought it would be controversial, it was controversial and it will not doubt bring more controversy next season. VAR is here to stay for another season. We are beyond the ‘test phase’ now and if the system is to be accepted by fans, the much vaunted improvements need to be made.

It needs to be quicker, more transparent and the fans inside the stadiums need to be better informed. Let’s just see what VAR and the World Cup finals make of each other!

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Mathew Burt

A year spent living in Bremen got Mathew hooked on the Bundesliga with regular visits to the Weser Stadion getting in the way of his studies. Back in the UK now, he still keenly follows the Grün-Weißen and German football in general. Follow him on Twitter @matburt74.

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