The inclusion of Video Assistant Referee is one of the biggest on-field technological advancements football has seen ever. Swaroop Swaminathan attempts to break down its nascent history, why more than a few people are sceptical about the process and why FIFA better not mess it up...
IT’S fair to say that Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has divided opinion since its inception into the wider football conscious over the last two years. After it was trialled in a reserve Major League Soccer (MLS) fixture in 2016, the technology has travelled the length and breadth of the world before it was tried by FIFA at the Confederations Cup in 2017.
After trials and tests at other places over the last year pleased them, the International Football Association Board (a body that governs laws of association football) sanctioned the use of that technology at the World Cup in Russia. In theory, the use of technology to help referees is a sound one. Especially in a tournament where referees have a penchant for slapstick.
Remember three yellows before a red? Or failing to spot Diego Maradona’s Hand of God? Or Nigel de Jong’s kung-fu kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso? VAR could eliminate errors and give referees a chance to right errors as they will have video assistance on the side of the pitch if they seek to use it. But there is a reason why VAR (Bundesliga and Serie A fans refer to it as VAR-cical after those two leagues used it in the 2017-18 season) is looked at suspiciously. It’s not foolproof, it disrupts the flow of the game and gives way to bizarre scenarios.
Just this April, Mainz were awarded a VAR penalty after SC Freiburg players had left the pitch after the referee had originally blown for half-time. The players were forced to come back for the penalty. There are high chances of such an episode happening at the World Cup. Serie A too has seen its fair share of controversies. The Italian Referees Association (AIA) said fans had sent them packages filled with bullets over the implementation of VAR. Former German international Rudi Voller isn’t a fan. “I was positive about it at the start. Now, after half a season, my verdict on it is not good. And I doubt it is going to get any better.” Gianluigi Buffon sang from the same hymn sheet. “They are overusing it and making mistakes. It’s something which, if used sparingly, could give us excellent results.”
Not quite foolproof
To give some credit to FIFA, they are aware of these issues and have conducted extensive workshops with the few who have been handpicked to be in the VAR Team. So how will they work in relation to on-field referees? The latter will continue to hold ultimate command and the former will only guide. But the system isn’t foolproof in the sense that even if the people situated in the centralised Video Operations Room ask the on-field referee to take a look at the replays, the technology still relies on human judgement which is highly subjective.
In the Confederations Cup final, Milorad Mazic missed a Gonzalo Jara elbow on Timo Werner and was alerted to the incident by VAR so he went to the side of the pitch to take a look at the footage. Inexplicably, Mazic gave only a yellow to the offender. Further, 50-50 calls will be outside VAR’s purview. It can only influence a decision when the officials have made ‘a clear and obvious error’ in one of four key areas: goals, penalties, straight reds and mistaken identity. The one obvious problem is what constitutes a ‘clear and obvious error’.
FIFA labels them ‘matchchanging’ decisions that have altered the course of the encounter. The problem with that is what happens when the technology develops gremlins? It has happened before. During the A-League final between Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory, a clear offside goal was not spotted by the linesman. In normal practice, the referee’s earpiece would have buzzed as VAR would have alerted the referee. But a few minutes earlier, the system had malfunctioned so the remotely-situated officials couldn’t convey the infringement even as TV replays played the offside goal on loop.
This is not to say that VAR will be a dud in Russia. Lots of preparation has gone into it. “I would say to the fans, players and coaches that it will have an impact, a positive impact,” FIFA boss Gianni Infantino said. “From almost 1000 live matches that were part of the experiment, the level of the accuracy increased from 93% to 99%.” And while the errors are always more high profile, the current structure has rectified some major mistakes as well.
Thomas Muller is one of the biggest players who will carry the VAR flag. “Just imagine if every decision would be indisputable. What would there be to fight about? Those debates are still there with the VAR... People like to complain. I am definitely in favour. I find it to be a good instrument for the referees.” Ultimately, that’s what it will come down to be. A tool the referee has to avoid gaffes on the sport’s biggest stage. Will they use it wisely? Tune in on Thursday to get an answer.
Points To Ponder
- New York Red Bulls II and Orlando B played the first game with help of VAR in August 2016.
- Germany and Italy used VAR in the 2017-18 season.
- At the World Cup, VAR will only intervene if a ‘clear and obvious error’ has been made by the referee.
- The on-field referee can do nothing if the system develops a glitch & he loses communication with the VAR team in VOR room in Moscow.
Did you know?
Since VAR’s introduction, players and coaches have urged the on-field referee to consult the technology by making a square signal. If players do that at the World Cup, the referees can show a yellow card to the player.