What is VAR and how is it working at the Russia World Cup?

Aside from a handful of trials across Europe, the World Cup in Russia will be the first time controversial VAR technology will be used in such a major tournament, on a world stage.

What is VAR and how is it working at the Russia World Cup?

And before the competition has even kicked off, the head of the FIFA referees committee, Pierluigi Collina, has revealed how it will be used by linesmen when making tight offside calls.

In particular, linesmen have been told to let play carry on, unless a player is clearly breaking the laws of the game, to avoid slowing down play.

“If you see some assistant referee not raising the flag it’s not because he’s making mistakes,” Collina explained at the World Cup referees media briefing on Tuesday. “It’s because he’s respected the instruction to keep the flag down.”

“They were told to keep the flag down when there is a tight offside incident and there could be a very promising attack or a goal-scoring opportunity because if the assistant referee raises the flag then everything is finished,” he said.

Should a contentious incident occur in the lead up to a goal, this can be reviewed by the VAR team which will communicate with the referee via an earpiece.

“If the assistant referee keeps the flag down and the play goes on and maybe a goal comes at the end, there is a chance to review the goal using the technology,” Collina added.

This revelation follows the news that, in order to avoid confusion, replays of incidents refereed to VAR will be shown on big screens at the World Cup, albeit only after the referee has made a decision.

In VAR trials in the FA Cup and international friendlies, it was not always clear what decision had been made, or indeed why that decision had been reached, so replaying the incidents on screens should eliminate such confusion – or cause further controversy.

For more information on how VAR will work at the World Cup, including when it can be called upon, read on.

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VAR in football: What is VAR?

VAR stands for video assisted referee. In the simplest terms, it refers to a referee situated in a video operation room who can review replays of contentious incidents from multiple angles to help the pitch referee come to the right decision. This video assisted referee, who is always a current or former referee, is directly supported by an assistant and a replay operator.

When can VAR be used?

VAR can be called upon in relation to only four aspects of the game: goals, penalty decisions, straight red card incidents and cases of mistaken identity. Importantly, in each of these cases, a decision will only be overruled if there is evidence there’s been a “clear error”.

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According to FIFA, the VAR team is “consistently assessing crucial decisions in the background”, and so as well as being asked by the referee to review an incident, the team can also recommend to the referee that a decisioned is looked at again.

Who makes the final decision?

The referee is informed by the VAR team what a replay shows, and, based on this, he or she can opt to review the video on a monitor at the side of the field of play, or make a decision. The final decision is always the referee’s. “VARs are purely there to assist, providing guidance and information to help avoid clear errors,” explains the FIFA website.

Which competitions is VAR used in?

As well as being trialled in England friendlies against France, Germany and Brazil, VAR has been used in the (EFL) Carabao Cup from the semi-final stage, and also the FA Cup. However, despite being written into the laws of the game by the IFAB, it won’t be coming to the Premier League anytime soon after clubs voted unanimously against it in favour of more testing. Nor will it be used in next season’s Champions League, with Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin saying “Fans see the VAR screen all the time but nobody knows how it works.”

How well does VAR work?

According to a study conducted by Belgian university KU Leuven, VAR has increased the likelihood of a correct decision being made from 93% to 98.9%. That’s got to be a good thing, but there are serious concerns about how it can slow up a game. The same study, which is based on 804 competitive games, claims that less than 1% of playing time is “lost” to VAR per game, but in the FA Cup fifth-round replay between Tottenham and Rochdale, VAR was consulted no fewer than eight times.

 Following an earlier FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Brom, Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp claimed the tie was cut short by six minutes. These delays led to the Football Supporters’ Federation voicing its concerns about the technology. “FSF policy was always to back goal-line technology provided that the results were instantaneous and didn’t break the flow of the game. Clearly that didn’t happen with VAR,” it said in a statement to the Press Association at the time.

There are also questions about whether VAR does always lead to the right decision being made. In January, Chelsea’s manager Antonio Conte was adamant a penalty should have been awarded for a tackle on Willian that resulted in the midfielder instead receiving a yellow card for diving. Slow-motion replays appeared to show contact between Norwich defender Timm Klose and Willian, but the VAR backed the referee’s original decision, leading to ex-England striker Alan Shearer branding the system “a shambles”. Conte argued that referee Graham Scott should have been told to watch the replay at the pitch side.

So will VAR improve the game?

Inevitably there are teething issues when any new technology is rolled out, whether that’s in sport or in any any other industry, but it feels somewhat jarring that many football fans will see VAR in action for the first time in the biggest tournament of all, the World Cup. If it’s not good enough for the Premier League yet, is it really good enough for an International tournament?

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Having said that, Rugby Union’s TMO (television match official) system, although not without its controversies, generally works well and has become a widely accepted part of the game since its introduction way back in 2001, and VAR ought to be no different.

Former Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer largely echoes this view. “Human error will still occur with VAR, other sports have shown that, but it dramatically reduces the number of errors,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“VAR is good for the decisions the referee didn’t quite get right or maybe didn’t even see. People will still celebrate, players will still continue, but I think once we get more clarity I think it will flow better,” he continued.

For now, the public’s opinion is much more split. In a recent BBC poll, only 16% of respondents said VAR has been great, while the further 84% of respondents were evenly divided between “I’m quietly enthused”, “Still not sure about it”, and “It’s a nonsense”.

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