The Video Assistant Referee never seems to be out of the headlines. With the World Cup around the corner has VAR been rolled out all too early?
Confusion - VAR hasn’t proven to be a panacea yet. When German referee Deniz Aytekin awarded a late penalty to Italy in a friendly against England, outrage and the latest instalment of VAR confusion ensued. "I think the ruling is 'clear and obvious' and this is not,” commented England manager Gareth Southgate. “It's one you can debate all day. I don't think with incidents like that VAR will clear things up.” His comments were somewhat ignorant, the updated VAR handbook doesn’t even mention ‘clear and obvious.’
Application of VAR - So when does VAR apply? Four ‘game-changing situations’ are up for reviews under the system: goals, penalty decisions, red cards and cases of mistaken identity. “clear and obvious error" is a catchphrase that doesn't apply. The pertinent question is - was the referee’s decision a ‘very clear’ error? If the VAR judges that there has been a ‘very clear’ error then he will over-rule and direct the referee to award a penalty. However, the final decision always rests with the on-field referee.
Minimum interference, maximum benefit - When the technology was rolled out, the IFAB had a simple credo - in essence to allow the game to flow, with little interference from the VAR. The reality has been somewhat different. The lawmakers of the game called the implementation of VAR ‘a historic step for football.’ FIFA president Gianni Infantino, long a supporter of VAR, also backed the technology, but VAR has proven to be divisive. In Italy's Serie A's VAR was introduced this season, with success.
Divisive VAR - Tottenham Hotspur coach Mauricio Pochettino thinks VAR kills the emotion in the game. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon feels VAR is turning the game inhuman and Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish believes the Premier League will lose TV reviews due to the time-lag caused by video referrals.
World Cup - The VAR will be used during this summer’s World Cup in Russia, but FIFA didn’t do themselves a service by having only seven of the 12 countries using VAR in at least one of their major competitions represented at the World Cup. The governing body announced the list of match officials last Thursday. VAR may be a big talking point during the finals, but the reality is that a significant number of officials will not have used VAR before. In the past, FIFA trialled VAR at the 2016 Club World Cup in Japan, the 2017 Club World Cup in the UAE, the Confederations Cup and the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea last summer.
Confederations Cup trial - Refereeing at last year’s Confederations Cup in Russia was chaotic at times and Massimo Busacca, FIFA’s head of refereeing, went as far as conceding that the credibility of the VAR was harmed by the time taken to reach decisions. Group B’s game between Germany and Cameroon featured VAR’s time lag prominently when Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan had to be corrected after initially sending off the wrong player. Busacca said: “Communication is crucial. It must be short and clear.”
The big screen - Apart from endangering the flow of the game, the lack of communication with fans has been glaring. VAR is unlike goal-line technology: often it’s not simply a fact in play, but the interpretation of the laws of the game. That subjective interpretation is transferred to the VAR. The absence of replays on the large-screen inside the stadium is a major apprehension about the system. Cue all the confusion and in some cases anger, but in the case of VAR replays may well be needed to counter the confusion, which often spreads when a decision is reviewed.
VAR is the future - In time, when the teething issues will have been ironed out, VAR will be a tool for justice in football. The fears will then quickly fade. In cricket and tennis DRS and Hawk-eye have ultimately proven to advance both sports. In football, ghost goals from Frank Lampard will belong to the past and wrongs will be righted, but a better understanding and implementation of VAR on all sides wouldn’t hurt. Next stop: Coverciano in Italy for a two-week seminar in April when the actual World Cup VARs will be selected.