The success of any relationship is based on trust. It is faith in the other that helps to successfully negotiate the challenges, to repair after those downward roller-coaster moments. But when integrity is called into question, when there is doubt, there is usually lasting damage, unless there is change.
The goal that was but wasn’t has put English soccer in crisis mode, raising concerns about the country’s standard of refereeing, calling into question the credibility of the system in the English Premier League and putting the much-maligned Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at an inflection point.
In a strongly-worded statement on Sunday, Liverpool said “sporting integrity has been undermined” after a goal was wrongly disallowed during the team’s 2-1 defeat by Tottenham at the weekend.
English soccer’s refereeing body has described it as a “significant human error,” of which there have been many since VAR was first used in the Premier League, but arguably there has never been a mistake as big as this.
On Saturday, in the biggest match of the Premier League weekend, Tottenham hosted Liverpool. Two in-form teams regarded as potential challengers to Manchester City’s throne, going head-to-head on live television.
Reduced to 10 men and with the score at 0-0 in an intense encounter, Mohamed Salah’s through ball delightfully found Luis Díaz who converted to give the visitors an unlikely first-half lead – or so Liverpool and everyone watching thought.
The goal was quickly ruled out for offside, even though television replays showed the Colombian was clearly behind the last line of Spurs’ defense when Salah made his pass, meaning it was a legitimate goal.
But in the seconds that followed Díaz finding the net, confusion ensued between the match officials, highlighting a major weakness in the VAR system: communication.
Darren England, the VAR for the match, followed the usual process of drawing lines on the screen to determine whether the goal was offside. It wasn’t and England knew that.
But a lapse of concentration by England led him to believe that referee Simon Hooper had awarded the goal when he had, in fact, ruled it out for offside.
Thinking he was confirming Hooper’s decision to give the goal, England’s response to Hooper was ‘check complete,’ affirming the referee’s initial decision instead of intervening and overturning it.
Once play had been restarted it was too late to review the mistake. According to the rules, the referee can only ‘review’ an incident once play has been restarted in the case of “mistaken identity or for a potential sending-off offence relating to violent conduct, spitting, biting or extremely offensive, insulting and/or abusive action(s).”
And so the match continued at its frantic, bonkers pace, with Tottenham taking the lead shortly after the disallowed goal and Liverpool leveling, before ending the game with nine men and losing to an own goal in the last seconds of injury time.
In a statement, English soccer’s refereeing body – the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) – described the incident as a “clear and obvious factual error” and said it would “conduct a full review into the circumstances which led to the error.”
England and his assistant, Dan Cook, were replaced for two Premier League games – Nottingham Forest vs. Brentford on Sunday and Fulham vs. Chelsea on Monday – but the spotlight has not dimmed on their calamitous error.
On Sunday, Liverpool responded with a statement which said it was “unacceptable” the mistake had been categorized as a “significant human error,” insisting “any and all outcomes should be established only by the review and with full transparency.”
On Tuesday, PGMOL released the audio of the officials’ discussion around the incident, including the communications between the team of VAR officials, as well as an additional statement which explained that the communication process between officials will be changed to avoid a similar situation happening again.
“In a lapse of concentration and loss of focus in that moment, the VAR lost sight of the on-field decision and he incorrectly communicated ‘check complete,’ therefore inadvertently confirming the on-field decision,” the PGMOL said. “He did this without any dialogue with the AVAR [Assistant VAR].
“The match then restarted immediately. After a few seconds, the Replay Operator and then the AVAR queried the check-complete outcome with the VAR and asked him to review the image that had been created, pointing out that the original on-field decision had been offside, but this was not communicated to the on-field team at any point during the match.
“The VAR team then gave consideration as to whether the game could be stopped at that point, however the VAR and AVAR concluded that the VAR protocol within the Laws of the Game would not permit that to happen, and they decided intervention was not possible as play had restarted.”
In the audio, England can be heard swearing when it’s pointed out that he’s incorrectly disallowed the goal.
At the heart of this is a failure in communication by match officials and a failure to put pragmatism before protocol.
VAR – which is essentially a match official in an operations room with access to match footage and who has one or more assistant VARs – was introduced in the Premier League for the 2019/20 season. The VAR is supposed to follow the match with intent, looking for potential misdeeds the referee on the pitch might miss.
They have rules and protocols to follow. For example, the VAR can only assist the referee in the event of a “clear and obvious error” or “serious missed incident” in relation to four scenarios: a goal or no goal, a penalty or no penalty, a direct red card or mistaken identity.
The technology has not eradicated refereeing errors. There will likely always be human error when it is humans operating a system.
There is an acceptance that mistakes will happen, and there have been plenty already this season in the Premier League. As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told the BBC after defeat on Saturday: “I know whoever made the mistake didn’t do it on purpose.”
But determining whether a player is offside or not is one of the few soccer rules which can be interpreted with few debates. Sometimes, there are marginal decisions, but a player is either onside or not – and in Díaz’s case he was onside by a few yards.
Former England captain Alan Shearer, speaking on the BBC soccer program, “Match of the Day,” said the decision was a “monumental error” which would put into doubt past and future offside decisions.
This situation is also unusual because the VAR would have, or should have, realized that a serious error had been made as soon as Hooper had disallowed the goal, and yet no one did anything, perhaps because of the protocols in place which prevented them from doing so. The major unanswered question is: when did the VAR realize a mistake had been made?
Neil Atkinson, presenter and CEO of the Liverpool fan podcast, ‘The Anfield Wrap,’ told CNN Sport’s Don Riddell that the “whole system has failed.”
“It pulls into question the notion of what they do or don’t say to the referee, which is why Liverpool want the audio,” he said.
“And the next part of this is surely, in the immediate aftermath of the goal not being given, they should’ve noticed. This is where words such as protocols come into place, and I think Liverpool’s issue is that the referees are choosing protocols over sporting integrity.
“Ultimately, everyone knows in the moment, or at least 10 seconds afterwards, the goal should be given and yet no one does anything about it, and it casts a massive shadow over the VAR process, a massive shadow over the quality of the refeering, a massive shadow over the communication.
“I care about the process, and being able to believe in the process and have faith in the process.”
The release of the audio of the conversations between the match officials would likely influence what Liverpool does next.
The club said in its statement that it “will explore the range of options available, given the clear need for escalation and resolution” without going into detail of what they might be.
Many wonder whether the game could be replayed, but this would be a surprising outcome given there is no precedent of this in English soccer.
It is precedent which would be key in any legal argument.
Stephen Taylor Heath, co-head of sports law at JMW Solicitors, told CNN Sport that the outcome for Liverpool would likely be a moral victory rather than a legal one.
“Lawyers like to deal in elements of certainty,” he said, explaining that it would be difficult to prove that the outcome of the match would have been different had the goal been allowed.
“If they’ve asked for the audio, they’re clearly asking PGMOL to prove what they’ve said in their statement is correct,” Taylor Heath said.
“It may not necessarily result in a legal action by Liverpool, but it may achieve something else which is for the officials behind PGMOL to be held accountable by the Premier League and for changes to be made within the PGMOL, which the PGMOL might not be prepared otherwise to make, which will hopefully avoid this type of situation happening again. All it achieves for Liverpool is changes to the processes.
“I think it would be very, very difficult for the club to ultimately succeed in a legal action to force the Premier League to order a rematch, or alternatively to declare a different result.
“They may be able to obtain some retribution, but not necessarily something that benefits the club in terms of the outcome of the match.”
However, as Taylor Heath points out, the Premier League, under Rule L18, has the power to order a league match to be replayed, provided it is recommended to do so by a commission.
“Liverpool may be seeking the audio to form the basis of a formal application to the EPL to convene an independent commission,” Taylor Heath told CNN later in an email. “Arguably, the commission’s powers could include ordering the match to be replayed.”
VAR Under Fire After Error in Spurs-Liverpool Match
The more likely outcome then is that some VAR rules could change, and perhaps more urgency given to improving overall refereeing standards, which have been heavily criticized within the English media in recent years.
There are certainly no shortage of opinions circling on how VAR could be improved. Times soccer journalist Henry Winter posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he had six suggested improvements “and counting.” The Daily Telegraph is one of many English newspapers with articles suggesting “ways to fix VAR.”
Englishman Howard Webb, PGMOL’s first chief refereeing officer, was appointed to his role last August with one of his aims being to improve standards in the use of VAR, having overseen the introduction of the system in Major League Soccer.
According to PA Media, during his time in the US, Webb held regular calls with the media to discuss incidents, while weekly explanatory videos were published which included in-game communication between officials.
In May, in-game audio from VAR decisions were broadcast for the first time in English soccer when Webb appeared on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football program to talk through several VAR decisions from the 2022/23 season.
PGMOL is currently not allowed to broadcast in-game discussions live during a match, but following the lead of other sports by being more transparent may help restore faith in the system. However, any VAR rule changes can only be made by the international games rule makers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB).
In rugby union, fans can listen to discussions between match officials on crucial decisions, making the process clear and open for all. It is also a sport which takes its time to review decisions; there is no rush to get the game back underway.
Currently, in soccer, even communicating VAR decisions to fans in the stadium is only being trialed, used – for instance – in the Women’s World Cup.
The immediate consequence has been that VAR officials England and Cook have not been selected to feature in this weekend’s Premier League games.
In the long term, the refereeing system in England has much to do if it is to restore the faith of fans, players and their clubs.