Video Assistant Referees may solve some of SA soccer’s worst officiating issues, but not all

Video Assistant Referees may solve some of SA soccer’s worst officiating issues, but not all
Grant Kekana of Mamelodi Sundowns in action with Edson Castollo and Ashley Du Preez of Kaizer Chiefs during their MTN8 semi final, 2nd leg match at Lucas Moripe Stadium on 23 September, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Referees are human and as such may make the odd mistake. However, in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, the errors seem to be continuously increasing.

The MTN8 final between Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates is just around the corner, taking place on Saturday, 7 October in Durban.

However, if the Premier Soccer League (PSL) had the technological benefits of the video assistant referee (VAR), it likely would have been Pirates versus Kaizer Chiefs. This as the officials overseeing the Amakhosi and Masandawana semifinal clash ignored the Soweto side’s calls for a legitimate penalty.

In an incident that would have been a foul in any other part of the pitch — the referee Luxolo Badi, despite having a clear view of the incident — waved it away. It was injury time and Sundowns led 2-1.

A goal for Chiefs at that time would have likely seen the match end as a two-all draw at the Lucas Moripe Stadium. Which would have been a 3-3 draw on aggregate in the two-legged semifinal. Amakhosi would have then advanced by virtue of scoring two away goals in the stalemate. Alas.

Luxolo Badi, VAR

Referee, Luxolo Badi. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Bad Badi benched

Since then, the South African Football Association (Safa) — which is responsible for referees in the country, has benched Badi while he navigates a rehabilitation programme that will see him return as a better referee.

Of course, Badi is not the first SA match official to make a mistake. In 2021, another Safa referee, Jelly Chavani — was suspended from officiating in any Premier Soccer League matches after denying Pirates a clear penalty against Swallows.

Over the years, there have been countless questionable calls made by match officials. So much so that former Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane coined the term “benefitting” when it comes to teams winning matches through dubious decisions by referees.

“If we benefitted, it is about time. In this league, people benefit and I’m happy to go three more games [through benefitting],” Mosimane said after one match in December 2019.

Mamelodi Sundowns, VAR

Themba Zwane of Mamelodi Sundowns in action with George Matlou of Kaizer Chiefs during their MTN8 semi final, 2nd leg match at Lucas Moripe Stadium on 23 September, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images)

“I’m waiting to benefit also. Some people benefit in a series of five games in a row. I want to [benefit] as well. And I’m not ashamed of that. I’m happy, I don’t care.”

Safe to say, even if they may not be as candid and callous about it as Mosimane was before his departure for greener pastures, players and coaches in the PSL have come to accept that erroneous officiating is just part of the game.

In the lower tiers of South African soccer, it is even more prevalent. Especially as games are not broadcast. Thus, the mistakes of those referees do not come under as much scrutiny as those of those in the top flight.

Historic mistake

Nevertheless, eyebrow-raising officiating is not a new phenomenon. It is also definitely not just a South African thing.

One of the most infamous instances of such is Diego Maradona using his hand to score a goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England.

The South Americans would proceed all the way to the final during that tournament, before winning it. The handball incident was subsequently dubbed “the hand of God” by Maradona.

The implementation of technology, in the form of video assistant referee (VAR) has lessened instances of such oversight, however, it has not completely eliminated it — as evidenced by the latest VAR controversy coming out of England’s Premier League.

An error by the VAR officials denied Liverpool’s Luis Díaz a legitimate goal as the Reds went down 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, 30 September. The goal was incorrectly ruled out as an offside, despite being checked. A costly mistake in a marathon of such fine margins.

The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) — which is the body responsible for refereeing games in English professional soccer — has since come to apologise for the circus in ruling the goal out.

“As stated shortly after the full-time whistle on Saturday, we acknowledged in a statement that a significant human error had occurred during the aforementioned match. Which we recognise should have resulted in a goal being awarded through VAR intervention,” read a statement from PGMOL.  

“[In future], 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.”

Luis Diaz

Luis Diaz of Liverpool reacts during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool on 30 September, 2023 in London, England. (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Of course, the statement does little to soothe the aches in Liverpool. It is also not the first time that VAR has made questionable decisions since its inception in English soccer in 2019.

It has long been called for in South Africa. Although, in 2020, PSL chairperson Irvin Khoza questioned its practicality in an under-resourced country such as South Africa.   

Nonetheless, Safa’s referees committee chairperson Victor Gomes recently confirmed that plans were in place to trial the technology during the last game of the current season — the Nedbank Cup final.

“We want to start with a final and then the following year move into the semifinals and quarterfinals,” Gomes told Marawa Sports Worldwide in August.

“We only have two or three trained referees at the moment, so that’s also a factor. A full introduction into the league could only take place in the next three years or so.”

As Gomes acknowledged, VAR will not be a magical wand that would solve all officiating problems in the country. And the evidence is already within the countries that have it, but still face refereeing struggles.  

Then the question would be whether, in future, we will see VAR being operated by artificial intelligence (AI) to eliminate “human errors.” 

In a world where science fiction is increasingly becoming the lived reality, anything is possible. DM


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