“It’s probably the most complex undertaking in sport ever”: Is VAR ready for the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
VARs (video assistant referees) are a relatively new phenomenon, having first been approved for two years of “live experiments” by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in 2016 – yet in in this time, they’ve generated enough controversy to last a lifetime.
In the simplest terms, VAR refers to a qualified referee sat in a video operation room whose sole job during a match is to review replays of contentious incidents from multiple angles, to help the pitch referee come to the right decision.
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It’s hardly surprising that the system has been met with criticism. As well as having its fair share of teething issues, it’s arguably the biggest change football has seen in the modern era. Beyond this, the problem with VAR is that things are not always black and white. The video referee might have multiple camera angles at their disposal, but they must still determine that a “clear error” has been made in order to overturn a decision. This subjectivity, above all, gives rise to concerns about how much the process could slow the game up.
“The only person who doesn’t have the information is the referee, which is ludicrous”
VAR hasn’t been introduced on a whim. It’s the growing criticism referees have faced as a result of advances in consumer technology – specifically the instant availability of video replays on social media – that prompted the IFAB to trial the system and then to write it into the laws of the game in March.
“You will always have those who don’t like any change in football, which we understand, we appreciate, but we also have to protect the referee on the field,” Lukas Brud, secretary of the IFAB tells me.
“Nowadays, everyone has access to technology and the biggest problem is, in the stadium everyone has information immediately after what has happened… The only person who doesn’t have the information is the referee, which is ludicrous.”
It is not unheard of, Brud tells me, for frustrated managers to thrust their phones in the face of referees when leaving the field of play at half time. “The pressure is increasing almost daily. There’s a lot more electronic information flow in the stadium, that allows team officials to receive immediate information which wasn’t possible three years ago, or five years ago maybe.”
VARs at the World Cup
Brud cites the hard work FIFA has been doing as the main reason for his positive feelings about VARs. Specifically, he tells me that the association plans to use the best, most highly experienced VARs at the World Cup in Russia.
“Of course there’s a certain level of uncertainty because it’s the World Cup and it’s going to be used for the first time,” he explains. “The referees are naturally always under a lot of pressure in such a big tournaments, and we also have to remember that something might still happen which no-one could have foreseen, because this is not a flawless system.”
Significant practical considerations must be made before VARs can be introduced to a competition. Fast internet speeds are essential, for example, to ensure that high-quality footage can be delivered to a video operation room that’s not necessarily in the immediate vicinity of the stadium.
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow which will host the final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia
The IFAB, which writes the laws of the game but does not have any say in which competitions use VARs, has also established a list of practical requirements to ensure that when referees go from one competition to another, they’re using more or less the same technology. And perhaps most importantly, the referees have been given extensive training in how to use the system.
“This is not just sitting referees in front of the screen and expecting everything will go well,” Brud points out.
“It’s probably the most complex undertaking in sport ever – or in football ever – for a competition to implement VARs. You have various stakeholders that you need to involve, and you need a certain time to train your referees. Because if referees are not trained consistently; if you don’t have this experience, you cannot use VARs.”
Brud is mostly pragmatic when it comes to fans’ acceptance of the system, explaining this might initially depend on something as simple as whether an individual’s team benefits from it. However, he’s also confident that once everyone has seen the system used effectively at the World Cup, they’ll see how it all but guarantees a fairer outcome – a view bolstered in research by KU Leuven in Belgium, which demonstrated that VAR increases the likelihood of a correct decision from 93% to 98.9%.
“There are always situations that are tricky and create debate, but it has helped statistically a lot – and I’m not hiding behind statistics,” Brud tells me. “If I want to criticise VARs and I look at those statistics, I have no argument.”
Are VARs sucking spontaneity from games?
Time lost by referring decisions to VARs is one of the main concerns shared by football managers, fans and pundits alike. Following the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Brom in January, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp complained the match was cut short by six minutes, saying: “What I heard was that the actual extra time in the first half should have been 10 minutes. It was only four minutes”.
“The statistics we have provided show that the game itself is not a 90-minute stop-and-go. It’s a 60-minute game with 30 minutes of stoppages”
Brud concedes that the use of VAR in that game was “premature” and didn’t work the way it should. However, he also argues that wasted time is essentially part of the game: “The statistics we have provided show that the game itself is not a 90-minute stop and go. It’s a 60-minute game with 30 minutes of stoppages.” Moreover, he explains that excessive time can be lost to controversial incidents, whether there’s a video referee to consult or not.
On this point, the IFAB secretary tells me to look up a game between Brazil and Peru on YouTube (see below), where it took the referee several minutes to award a goal to Peru following an alleged handball by one of the Peruvian players.
“With VARs, you could have solved this issue within about 30 seconds. I think it was six minutes. A very, very long time and a very important moment in the game. Brazil was disqualified from the tournament.”
Will VAR change the game?
So how will VAR change the game, in the long term? Brud argues that although it’s a big deal right now, provoking lots of questions, people will soon forget a time without it. Indeed, he tells me that some fans in Germany are already starting to complain about the lack of VARs in the Champions League, having become accustomed to the system in the Bundesliga.
“So in terms of that development of football, of course it’ll change a little bit, but as I’m observing, it’s not changing it so much that people would turn away from football and say “no, this is not any longer my sport”.
“People love scandals and they love the negatives, especially in Europe”
Paul Field, chairman of the Referees’ Association, is concerned VARs might slow the game down, and that unrealistic expectations from fans regarding the speed of decision making could lead to excessive pressure on referees. However, he’s also optimistic that the system could work in an educational capacity.
“I hope there is greater education and understanding of the laws of the game”, he tells me. “The media has a significant public duty of accurate reporting and subsequent education, because uneducated media reporting generates abuse at grass roots.”
As to whether VAR will be a hit at the World Cup? Watch this space, but when the system does find itself at the centre of any controversies, it’s safe to say that pockets of football fans will love to hate it.
“People love scandals and they love the negatives, especially in Europe,” Brud agrees.
“People were afraid we’d have no debates about football when VARs come into the game. Well I guess you were wrong!”