It’s been over a week since the World Cup ended. It feels like the end of an era, because the next one will be weird, for us in Europe at least, as it’s played in November. Following that, the 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams in 16 groups of 3, robbing us of the most dramatic part of this World Cup, which was the final group games, where the team that was qualifying changed several times during the games.
But, as well as the good, the tournament highlighted some of the bad in football and I've been thinking about some of the ways football can be improved.
A lot of these ideas are VAR-centric. Now, I hate VAR. It’s an overblown solution to a problem that has only ever existed in the minds of annoyed fans, and certain managers who’ve become accustomed to using the referee as a cover for their own mistakes.
What we got at the World Cup was a version of VAR that felt like a beta test, and created as many problems as it solved.
However, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. VAR looks like it’s here to stay. People like me will just have to get used to it. So, rather than moaning about VAR’s failings, here’s some ideas as to how we make it a little better.
1. Full-speed replays in VAR
A no-brainer. Slow-motion has many advantages, but it can also give a false idea of what really happened. Studies have shown that a referee watching an incident on slo-mo will be more likely to think it intentional. I think the wise thing to do is include full-speed replays as part of the VAR process.
The World Cup final changed as a result of the handball given against Ivan Perisic. It meant Croatia had to take a few more risks, commit a few more players forward, which then gave France’s attackers the chance to wreak havoc on a Croatia defence that had done a good job of bottling them up.
I don’t know if Nestor Pitana only had slo-mo replays in the final or if he watched some full speed replays. Watching the Perisic ‘handball’ on slo-mo, I still didn’t think it was a penalty, but I can see why some others might have. However, I think that if anyone, the referee included, saw that in full-speed, it would be clear that Perisic didn’t intentionally handle the ball; he just didn’t have the time to.
2. Time limits on VAR
The whole point of VAR is that it’s supposed to be used only when there’s a ‘clear and obvious error’. It’s not meant to be used for marginal and subjective calls such as the Perisic incident.
As it’s only meant to be used when there’s a clear and obvious error, there shouldn’t be any need for the replays to take more than say, a minute? It should really be a case of referee taking a look at a replay or two, and immediately realising their mistake, or not. If it takes longer, it wasn’t clear or obvious and shouldn’t have ever been referred.
3. Make the VAR ref give the decision
One of the big flaws with VAR in its current form is that it’s only advisory. Ultimately it comes down to the referee on the pitch to make a decision. Referees by nature have to be stubborn when they make a decision. At least one set of players and fans will dispute any decision made. So, referees can be told they’re wrong and ignore it.
But, if you are told you’re wrong by your peers, you’re going to be more likely to listen. It’s inevitable that there’s a sort of confirmation bias there and they’ll look at the replays looking for where they made a mistake.
So, I think it should be taken out of the referees hands. The VAR referees are all qualified enough to make the decision, and they're all dressed for it, so let them make it. That’s how it works in other sports like Cricket and Rugby.
4. Adopt the Green Card
One of the few negatives from this World Cup was the sheer amount of cheating that was going on. VAR added to this, with players exaggerating the slightest bit of contact in the hopes of attracting the attention of the VAR officials. Football is the only sport I can think of where it’s an accepted tactic to try and get one of your opponents sent off. It’s not a good look for the sport.
Earlier this summer, I was at the CONIFA World Football Cup in London, and they had a neat solution in that the referees there had the power to show a green card to any player caught cheating or doing any other unsportsmanlike behaviour. A player shown a green card had to be immediately substituted. If the player’s team had already used all of its subs, then they go down to 10 men.
This could be easily introduced, especially with VAR, where it would be a simple matter of getting the VAR officials to check the replay of any incident and direct the on-field referee to show the green card.
5. 10-minute concussion checks for head injuries
Football has a horribly cavalier approach to head injuries. Concussion is barely understood, and its diagnosis is more likely to be seen as an excuse being made for poor performance, rather than a potentially serious injury.
At present, it’s up to each team’s doctor to make a concussion diagnosis, with FIFA recommending that a concussed player doesn’t play with 6 days, but it is likely that there are many players purposely going undiagnosed or not receiving proper care.
During the game between Morocco and Iran, Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat was knocked out by a nasty clash of heads. After the game he spent the night in hospital and suffered memory loss. Astonishingly he was cleared to play against Portugal five days later. Similarly, France’s Blaise Matuidi was clearly dazed after colliding with Eden Hazard during the semi-final, but was somehow allowed to play on only to collapse a few minutes later. Matuidi was cleared to play in the final.
Diagnosing concussions takes time. So, let’s give the doctors and the players that time. In Rugby League, any player with a suspected head injury has go off for a 10-minute concussion check.
Football should do the same. Any player who goes down with a head injury should be made to leave the pitch for a 10-minute concussion check. They could be temporarily replaced by another player, and like rugby, if the concussed player isn’t fit to carry on, then that substitution becomes permanent. The concussion checks should also be carried out by an independent neurologist, who wouldn’t be subject to the pressures a team doctor would have in getting a player back on the pitch.
This would have several benefits. Players in need of treatment would get it. Players going down holding their face to try and get an opponent sent off would stop if they had to sit out 10 minutes. And, if we’re using VAR, then you could have a neurologist looking at possible incidences of players needing assessment that have been missed on the pitch.
6. Mic up referees
Too often players and referees use the referee as a convenient punching bag for their own failings with impunity. They are allowed to treat the ref in a way no person should be treated. And, that message filters down, which is why parents seem to think it’s acceptable to scream abuse at a teenager referring a game, and that teenager in turn decides the peanuts they’re paid isn’t worth the abuse, and quits, and that’s why referee numbers are dropping.
Football has failed to do anything about this. Campaigns to respect the referee fizzle out when the players ignore it and the authorities do nothing to enforce it. Worse, they enable it by telling referees to either ignore, or only mildly punish incidents such as Ronaldo getting in referee Cesar Arturo Ramos’ face and screaming ‘F**k you’ towards the end of Portugal’s defeat by Uruguay.
If the authorities aren’t going to get them to stop, then I think the only way will be if the world gets to hear the things players say to referees. Players may not care if the world gets to hear them abusing another person, but their sponsors will. If sponsors get nervous about being associated with the sport, or a particular player, the abuse will stop.