Video reviews have changed the face of European soccer. One country is holding out


STOCKHOLM — As the Swedish league got underway this spring, yellow-and-black-clad supporters of Stockholm club AIK held up an enormous banner containing a long, vivid story about the dark forces of modern soccer conquering the world.

“The whole world? No!” read the words on the giant display. ”There was, in fact, a small area that successfully resisted the intruders, surrounded by modern ’s smoldering ruins.”

The intruder in this case is VAR — the high-tech video review system formally written into the laws of soccer in 2018 to help referees make the right calls in the biggest moments.

While most leagues around the world are now using this technology, Sweden is an outlier in holding out and, in its view, retaining the game in its purest form.

The Swedish league is the only one of Europe’s top-30 ranked leagues yet to have rolled out the system. It won’t be happening anytime soon, either.

“VAR is a symbol of modern, commercialized-to-the-point-of-destruction ,” says Ola Thews, vice-chairman of AIK’s largest supporter organization, ASK.

Thews is more than just a die-hard AIK fan. He played a part in mobilizing anti-VAR sentiment among Sweden’s top clubs and helped push through a motion at AIK opposing the introduction of the technology, before the Swedish soccer federation had the chance to bring it in.

That’s possible because Swedish clubs are majority-controlled by members — essentially, supporters — under a regulation that states members should control at least 50% of their club’s shares, plus one.

Although the federation initially appeared to want VAR in operation — the technology is, after all, used at European and international level — it will not go against the wishes of its member-run clubs. As a result, the federation has held off on further discussions about adopting VAR and said last week it doesn’t envisage any in the foreseeable future.

That’s a big win for Swedish match-going fans who are proud of their rebel status in European soccer.

No VAR. No out-of-touch American owners or oil money from the Middle East. A culture where fans matter.

Soccer as it should be, in their view.

VAR “ruins the euphoria” that soccer can bring, Thews says. “The absolute happiness and passion, or grief and sadness, that comes from a goal being conceded or a goal being scored if you’re not sure what has happened until it has been reviewed and decided in a VAR room.”

Compared to other sports, soccer is a latecomer to video replays. In the United States, the NFL introduced instant replays in the mid-1980s but scrapped the system in 1991 after widespread discontent. They returned in 1999 and have spread to other major North American leagues and international sports, such as cricket and rugby.

In soccer, pausing for video reviews can appear more disruptive. Not least because the VAR system has its imperfections.

In the English Premier League, a communications mix-up between the official running the video review and the on-field referee cost Liverpool a valid goal in a loss at Tottenham in October. Weeks later, a Tottenham-Chelsea match had a total of 21 minutes of stoppage time added on largely because of a raft of video reviews. Earlier this month, Nottingham Forest put out an inflammatory statement, questioning the integrity of a match official, after being denied what it perceived to be three clear penalty shouts overlooked by the video referee.

In Spain, Barcelona threatened legal action to force a replay after a VAR-related controversy in the recent “clasico” against Real Madrid.

Meanwhile, across the Swedish border in Norway, fans already unhappy at VAR being adopted by the country’s federation last year before its member-run clubs could establish a unified position have become increasingly disillusioned with the technology after just one season. In one match, it took seven minutes for VAR to decide on an offside call — FIFA’s original vision was that it should take no more than six seconds.

“Throughout the season, after seeing VAR in full effect, opposition has grown a lot and there’s been a lot of disgruntled supporters, staff and coaches, and players as well,” Anders Kjellevold, chairman of the Norwegian supporters’ alliance, told The Associated Press.

Kjellevold is looking at Sweden with some envy as Norwegian supporter groups begin the long process of attempting to remove VAR from their competitions.

“We try to take inspiration from Sweden — what they did, how they organized themselves to influence the clubs,” he said. “Even though we’re late in the process, we’re actually trying to do something similar.”

Sweden’s rather isolationist position on VAR has echoes of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sweden stood out in Europe, and much of the world, as it kept schools open and opted against lockdowns, relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to protect the population.

A few years later and Sweden is again the odd one out, this time in soccer.

Svante Samuelsson, the sporting director of the organization running Sweden’s top leagues, recognizes that not having VAR could put the country’s referees and even players at a disadvantage when it comes to performing on the international stage.

Yet, Samuelsson also understands the importance of fans’ feelings.

“Swedish supporters are very influenced by the pictures from the Premier League, especially, and that kind of makes them even more sure that they are against VAR,” Samuelsson said at his office in Stockholm. “If there’s a goal, they want to know if it’s a goal immediately, and not have to wait for a decision afterward. It’s better for it to be wrong than to have to wait — that’s their logic.”

In England, according to figures given to rights-holder Sky Sports in February, 82% of refereeing decisions were deemed “correct” by the Premier League before VAR was adopted ahead of the 2019-20 season. Since VAR has been used, 96% of the decisions are correct, according to the league.

In Sweden, Martin Ingvarsson, the head of referees, keeps a log of all the obvious mistakes made by match officials in the top league, Allsvenskan. Ingvarsson told the AP that in each of the last two seasons there were 41 occasions when VAR would have intervened had it been in use.

That’s absolutely no problem for Thews.

“I think anything where you have actual real-life humans participating is going to be imperfect,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Bersant Celina, a midfielder for AIK, agrees.

“It’s the proper way. It’s pure,” Celina told the AP. “Referees are also part of the game and they can make mistakes.”

Finding a pro-VAR opinion among the players or coaches in Sweden isn’t easy. It’s not exactly a good look to oppose your clubs’ members, after all.

So it’s among the fans where there is a healthier debate.

Hans Bolling and Nils-Olof Zethrin have been attending AIK games together for almost 30 years. They are finding their current conversations chiefly revolve around VAR, with each taking a different side.

“It’s good that we have been waiting a little bit, compared to other countries,” Zethrin said ahead of AIK’s match against Varnamo on a chilly evening last Tuesday in the Swedish capital. “But I think it’s a little bit strange to say ‘no’ to some kind of new technology when it’s developed in the right manner.

“You can’t just look back. You have to look in the future.”

Bolling, cradling a cup of coffee, smiled and proffered his own view.

“It destroys the flow of the game,” he said. “VAR is for the TV public, not for the stadium-going public.

“We don’t need it and, at AIK, we’ll never accept it.”


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