Audio Reveals Panic, Confusion, And Expletives In Liverpool-Tottenham VAR Room
2:50 PM EDT on October 3, 2023
I am not a professional soccer referee, but I think it's safe to say that referees don't want to be in a situation where one of their colleagues lets out a "Oh [expletive]" in the middle of a match-altering decision. And yet, that's the situation that the refs in charge of VAR during Liverpool-Tottenham on Saturday found themselves in. After a few days of deliberations and what-aboutism from fans and pundits, the PGMOL (the governing body for English refs) released the audio from the VAR room during the pivotal Luis Díaz disallowed goal decision, and it's both a damning indictment of the whole replay system and a perfect explanation for what allowed such an error to happen in the first place.
The first thing that is clear from the video is that everything that happened came out of a need for expediency. The review of the Díaz goal began even before the side judge had raised his flag, with the VAR referee, Darren England, immediately calling for a review of a possible offside on the Colombian. From there, the check occurs impeccably, as England asks for a freeze frame of Mohamed Salah's pass, in order to determine the moment the ball left his foot. The replay then shifts to Díaz's position, and after finding the best camera angle, England asks for a 2D line on Cristian Romero's left boot, which he then quickly determines keeps Díaz onside. This is where things go downhill.
"Check complete, check complete. That's fine, perfect." This is what England says immediately after seeing the 2D line that shows Díaz onside, and he seems to be saying that the goal should stand. However, "check complete" is terminology utilized to confirm a call on the field, and the side judge had raised his flag for offside. (You can hear him in the video at the start, as "Assistant Referee 1," saying that it's "coming back for the offside, mate.") With that in his ear, head referee Simon Hooper indicated play should resume, after which Tottenham quickly put the ball in play from a free kick. Hooper can be heard saying "Well done, boys, good process," oblivious to the fuck-up.
At this point, the panic begins to set in. The replay operator, the ref in charge of controlling the replay system but crucially not in charge of making the decisions from replay evidence, starts to clarify that they have made a mistake. He explains that the on-field decision was offside, and then asks England, "Are you happy with this?" which is maybe the most confusing way to raise an issue in real time. The Assistant VAR reiterates what happened—"Offside, goal, yeah"—which also doesn't help anyone understand what the problem is. Meanwhile, the game has already moved on.
After both the replay operator and the Assistant VAR explain that the call on the field is offside, and that the image they pulled up actually signaled onside, we get England's moment of realization that he had fucked it all up. "Oh [expletive]." By this point, there's nothing the team in charge of the replay can do, as the game has been going on for a few seconds, and so the replay operator asking for a "delay, delay" to fix the mistake falls on deaf ears. The last thing that the video shows is England saying, "I can't do anything, I can't do anything," followed by one last expletive to take everyone home.
So, that's a lot to take in, but at its core, this was a problem brought on by two separate issues. The obvious one is that England used the wrong terminology. Rather than stating clearly that the goal should be allowed, his usage of "check complete" in his communication to Hooper set the mistake in motion. The second, though, is that the speed of the check made such a simple error impossible to fix. This is a thornier issue, because one of the main drawbacks of VAR is that it slows games down to a crawl while players wait for a check to be concluded. The instinct to want to speed through an obvious decision, such as Díaz being onside after all, is a good one, but clearly one that backfired here.
How to prevent a mistake like this in the future? "PGMOL has carried out a review into the circumstances which led to this incorrect outcome and the subsequent learnings will be implemented to mitigate the risk of errors occurring in the future," read the PGMOL's statement that accompanied the video, which looks like a bunch of corporate speak to avoid saying anything actionable, which won't make this debacle sting any less for the Pool Boys. More promising is the additional statement by the PGMOL, which says clearly that three additional actions will occur in response to the situation on Saturday:
- Guidance to Video Match Officials has always emphasised the need for efficiency, but never at the expense of accuracy. This principle will be clearly reiterated
- A new VAR Communication Protocol will be developed to enhance the clarity of communication between the referee and the VAR team in relation to on-field decisions
- As an additional step to the process, the VAR will confirm the outcome of the VAR check process with the AVAR before confirming the final decision to the on-field officialsPGMOL
Those last two steps, if implemented and utilized, should be enough to at least prevent another incident like this from happening again. This may be just one of the myriad problems VAR has brought to the game, but until we get the system's full removal, patching this hole is at least better than nothing.