What is it?
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is the system of using video replays to help on-field football referees. After years of considering – and opposing – video technology, the FIFA, football’s governing body, eventually came around. Trials began in 2016 when the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which defines the rules of the game, formally approved the use of the VAR. It has since been used in competitions around the world, including in Australia, Germany, Italy and the U.S. It was used in a FIFA tournament for the first time at last year’s Confederations Cup. Russia 2018, which kicked off on Thursday, is the first time the VAR is being deployed at a FIFA World Cup.
How will it operate?
For the World Cup, a team of four video assistant referees — a chief VAR and three assistants — will be stationed at a central operation room in Moscow during matches. They will have access to footage from 33 broadcast cameras and closely analyse all decisions in real-time, communicating with the on-field referee through a radio system. The VAR is meant to come to the aid of the referee in four “game-changing situations”: goals (and any foul leading up to them), penalty decisions, direct red card incidents, and cases of mistaken identity. The VAR team communicates with the on-field referee only if it has spotted a “clear and obvious” (in FIFA’s words) error. Alternatively, the referee may choose to ask for a review himself. In the case of objective decisions — like an offside call or whether the ball has gone out of play — the referee will accept information from the VAR team. If a subjective call is to be made, like whether an action is a foul or not, the referee will watch the footage of the incident on a screen by the side of the field before arriving at a decision.
Why does it matter?
In practice, implementing the system has not been easy. Play has to be stopped when there is a review, and this slows the game down. A balance has to be struck between correcting apparent mistakes and ruining the tempo of a match: it is easier said than done. In an FA Cup tie between Tottenham Hotspur and Rochdale in London earlier this year, there were as many as 10 reviews, several of them taking around a minute, while players and fans awaited the outcome on each occasion. Tottenham defender Danny Rose later called the process “ridiculous” and “complete nonsense.” In the Grand Final of Australia’s A-League, a technical glitch caused the VAR to fail mid-game and a goal that should have been ruled out for offside was allowed to stand. In the Confederations Cup final last year, an elbow in the face was deemed unworthy of a red card after a three-minute review. If we end up with debatable decisions even after review, goes the argument, why are we wasting time on the VAR?
Then there are the purists, like former FIFA president and France star Michel Platini, who believe such technology disrupts the flow of the game and undermines a referee’s authority. “Football is a human game and the mistakes are human,” he once said. “We need to help solve the mistakes, but we must not lose the human feeling of our sport.”
What lies ahead?
The FIFA has left it to individual competitions to decide whether they want to implement the VAR. The Premier League in England has decided against it, and feels goal-line technology (in use in the competition since 2013 and at the World Cup since 2014) is all the innovation its referees need. For the World Cup, the FIFA has resolved to make the VAR experience better and keep fans — those watching on TV and at the stadium — informed about the review process. Some of the criticism is justified and the system still needs refining. The World Cup has, perhaps, come a little too early for the VAR. But it is here to stay.