There is no doubt that the current state of affairs for sports mirrors all of life. It pretty much sucks. And this morning it was announced that one of my all time favorite players, Marouane Fellaini, has tested positive for the virus. The good news for him is that he is pretty symptom free.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

But I am taking my personal responsibility to heart and hope you all are too. But there are positives from this outbreak. The neighborhood I live in is made up of a mix of full time residents and part timers. Those whose houses are used as weekend and vacation getaways. With all area schools closed until at least mid-April there are more families here than you normally see. And thankfully they are pretty much doing the right things. They are mostly keeping within their family groups. Playing in the yard, walking their dogs, and the like. And even those riding their golf carts around (they are legal to use on the streets here) are staying away from others. So kudos to my friends and neighbors. But what does that have to do with soccer? Well nothing except that its given me even more time to figure out how to fill up the days and one thing I have done is a lot of thinking about soccer. With no matches to think about I have been pondering some things that I would like to see that might make the game even better. Some of these things are already being discussed at high levels and I do expect to see some changes in the not too distant future. So here goes.

Virtual Assistant Referee

There is no better place to start than with VAR. Most major leagues and competitions are now using VAR. The technology exists and there is just no way to not keep in a part of the game now. Simply put unless you stop showing replays on television or in stadiums, you would have major fan unrest if you did away with video reviews (and this goes for all sports). So VAR is here to stay. But how is it working so far and is it really serving its intended purpose? The issue is that the intent is good but the implementation is lacking. The stated purpose of VAR is to allow for “clear and obvious errors” and “serious missed incidents” to be corrected.

Specifically VAR is used in soccer for only four circumstances:

1) Goals – to determine that a fair goal has been scored and that no infringement occurred to disallow a goal.

2) Penalty Decisions – to determine whether or not a penalty kick should be awarded or not.

3) Direct Red Card Incidents – to determine if a decision to send off a player or not was a correct decision.

4) Mistaken Identity – to ensure that the correct player is cautioned or sent off.

Like in all sports the biggest complaint lies in it slowing the game down. Which is even more problematic in soccer. Football and baseball having built in stoppages after every play/pitch. Even basketball and hockey have more stoppages and their stoppages tend to be much longer than in soccer. And all four of those other sports have built in tv time outs. So fans are somewhat tolerant of the time it takes to do a video replay. The key word there being somewhat. Soccer fans are not used to slowing the game down. And one thing all fans have in common and its a question that has surrounded replays since their first use. Why do we have so many calls that still get called wrongly even after being reviewed? Certainly some of that will always happen as there are human judgments in play. But how often do you see an after the fact announcement from a league office saying that they got it wrong!!

So with VAR having been used in last summers Women’s World Cup and for even longer in most Eurpoean leagues. But its the English Premier League where most of the uproar has occurred this year. Being the first season of use in the EPL some of that is to be expected as the referees get used to using the tool and the fans see the ultimate outcomes. But there have been far too many cases thus far where the implementation of VAR has been less than adequate. Let’s look at some of the particularly “noteworthy” reviews.


In this particular situation Liverpool’s Robert Furmino was flagged by the Assistant Referee as being offside. As the play continued he scored a goal. As for all goals, the play was reviewed and the Referee determined that indeed Furmino was offside. His right arm is just ahead of the West Ham defender. The ruling was that his “armpit’ was ahead of the defender.


In this sequence there are several goals reviewed. The first two by Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. As per protocol both goals were reviewed. The first goal was disallowed while the second goal stood. The good news is that they technically used VAR to get the correct call. The bad news is that in the first goal Sterling was viewed as offside. Historically the guidance given to referees was that a player was in an offside position if you could see daylight between his torso and the torso of the second to last defender. Now the actual law states that “any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.” So again, the call after review was “correct.” But is that really what was intended by using VAR. Was the original call a “clear and obvious error?”

In the third segment, Manchester City was correctly awarded a penalty but the subsequent shot was saved by the West Ham keeper. But the goal check showed that the keeper had encroached (moved off the goal line prior to the shot being taken) so a retake was ordered and on the second attempt a goal was scored. In the last segment Wolverhampton was given a corner kick. The corner was deflected around in the box and a Wolverhampton player got on the end of the rebound and was able to strike it home.

This last play was reviewed and ruled no goal for a hand ball infraction. What is interesting about this particular play is the evolution of what a hand ball has become. Years ago a hand ball infraction was ruled much on intent. The guidance given to referees was to judge whether the play was a ball to hand (no hand ball call) or hand to ball (called). However this was subject to a fair amount of subjectivity on the part of the referee. So a number of years ago the guidance to referees was tweaked a bit. Not to do away with the ball to hand/hand to ball determination but to add in another twist. That being was the player’s arm in an “natural body position”. This interpretation is what led to many defenders holding their arms behind their backs when inside the penalty area. All well and good but very hard to do when you are leaping for a high ball. Your arms go up. Its how your body works. Well that has now evolved into the current guidance which attempts to remove as much subjectivity as possible. Intent is no longer any consideration. It boils down to two criteria.

– Did the ball strike the arm outside the shoulder joint?

– Was the arm away from the defenders body?

If the answer to both questions is yes then its viewed a hand ball. Everyone has to judge for themselves if this is a better approach or not. But this is one area where VAR should be clear. Well at least until its not as seen in this video. Its quite hard to see if the ball even struck the players arm outside the shoulder at all. Hardly concrete in the review.

In my perfect world VAR will stay. One can argue all they want about it slowing the game down (agreed), about it taking some of the human element out of the game (agreed), and that it results in questionable decisions too often (also agreed). But the technology is to good not to use it. What needs to happen is for referees to get more training and just time on the field using the system. And FIFA needs to take a look at the Laws of the Game and perhaps change those to reflect what the laws were intended to do in the first place. Calling a player offside because his armpit is ahead of the second to last defender seems to be going further than the original intent of the law.

Substitutions and Deciding Matches

The other subject I want to address, and they go hand in hand, is how match outcomes should be decided and the rules on substitutions. Starting with an upfront disclaimer. I am very biased in this area. Playing goalkeeper for 90% of my playing career I HATE solving matches via penalty kicks. It is a horrible way to determine a match winner. Now that said you must also recognize that matches can’t go forever. To me the NHL has it right. When they get down to the finals they play hockey. No shootouts. No 4-on-4. No shortened periods. They play full on hockey until somebody wins. I believe soccer should take a similar approach. So here are the changes I would like so see made in soccer at the senior level (youth play have their own set of rules).

– In major tournaments (World Cup, Euros, Gold Cup, FA Cup, etc) I would like the final match to be decided by playing soccer. Do away with penalties. After a full 90 minute match has ended in a tie, then instill two 15 minute segments as is done currently. Both segments would be played in their entirety. This is important because the weather, especially wind, can make playing towards one end of the field very advantageous. So I would play the full 30 minutes giving each team opportunities at the wind aided end of the field. But after that 30 minutes I would change things. There are a number of ways you could handle this. One scenario would be to add two additional 10 minute (other time allotments work too) segments each played in their entirety to minimize weather impacting the outcome. This would continue until at the end of a 20 minute extra time one team has won the game.This would be my preferred approach. However, another option would be to go to golden goal. After the initial 30 minute extra time period teams would continue playing extra time periods (again perhaps 10 minutes) but once a goal is scored the game is over. FIFA already allows additional substitutions to be made in extra periods as long as they are spelled out in the tournament rules. However, FIFA does currently have limit the total number of subs to be no more than 5. I would do away with that requirement once you are beyond the original 30 minutes of extra time. I would allow an additional sub for each additional 10 minute segment. Current rules allow competitions to authorize rosters to as many as 23 players. This should be plenty for this approach to work.

– The second substitution law I would change would be how to handle foul caused injuries when a team has already used their allotted subs. Prior to soccer being shut down I was watching a closely fought match in the EPL. The match was tied and it was around the 80th minute. Team A had already used their allowed 3 subs as they were really pushing to try and get the win. Team A was attacking and a player on Team B committed a bad foul from behind, studs into the calf of the Team A player. The Referee correctly called for a direct red card and sent the Team B player off. As required he reviewed the play and confirmed that direct red was correct. So Team B had to play down a man the last 10 minutes. However, this turned out to be essentially no penalty at all. The injured player on Team A had to be carted off the field and couldn’t even consider returning. However, having already used their allowed 3 subs they also had to play the rest of the way with 10 men. I think a simple change here should be that in a situation where a team has already used all their subs but they subsequently get a player injured by an opposing player who gets red carded that they get to bring on an injury replacement. Makes no sense that the offending team doesn’t suffer for their behavior.

– The third change I would like to see is for head injuries. If play stops for an injury then that player must leave the field and has to reenter only after being allowed back on the field of play by the Referee. If a player gets sent to the sidelines for a head injury I would change things as follows: The player would go to the sideline just as required today. If the team determines that he’s fine then that player would wait to reenter just like its currently done. However, if it is determined that the player needs to go into a concussion protocol then the team would be allowed to put in a substitute  for them while they were being evaluated under the protocol. If the determination is that the player is fine then they could resub back on the field and the original sub would come back off. This would not count as one of three substitutions and the player that came off would still be available to go back in as a normal sub further in the match. If the determination was that the original injury would preclude that player from returning then the sub would stay on the field and it would count as a normal substitution. Note that this protocol would have to be done by league doctors and not team doctors. My concern here is that team do not want to play shorthanded while an injured player is evaluated nor do they want to make a substitution that may not be necessary so they rush the process.

Its a shame we all find ourselves in this situation and that sports are shut down. But its the right call to make so in the interim here’s some soccer stuff to ponder.

Steve Birrer
Steve Birrer

Soccer Analyst

Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O’s. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.