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In Coverciano, we experience Collina and VAR's big World Cup push

General view of the VAR hall during the FIFA Referee Seminar - Media Day at Coverciano on April 18, 2018 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
by Samindra Kunti, AIPS Media

Coverciano, April 19, 2018 - Hidden on the outskirts of Florence and the glowing hills of Tuscany, Coverciano has long been the intellectual bulwark of Italian football, one of the birthplaces of Italy’s great school of coaching, and, if in recent times the shine has somewhat faded following Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup and the institutional crisis at the Italian Football Federation, the ‘Technical Centre’ is maintaining its fine tradition of progressive thinking by hosting the penultimate FIFA Referee Seminar, strongly focused on the Video Assistant Referee System (VAR).

Communication at the World Cup - FIFA will implement special measures to ensure a good communication with fans during the World Cup. At the finals, supporters won’t be left in the dark about the reasons behind decisions of the VAR. The world’s governing body has rolled out a VAR information system. A FIFA staff member will listen in to the VAR’s decisions and communicate those to TV commentators and stadium personnel operating the giant screens.

Replays on the big screens - “So we will have graphics on the giant screens, we will have replays after the decision on the giant screens, and we will also inform the fans about the outcome of a VAR incident and review," said Sebastian Runge, group leader of football innovation at FIFA. No replay will however be shown before a final decision has been taken.

VAR’s limitations - Still, communication won’t make perfect. “The target is not to referee the match with technology,” said Pierluigi Collina, the iconic high priest of modern refereeing and FIFA’s boss of referees. “This has never been the target - not to scrutinise every incident on the field of play. This has to be clear, otherwise there can be a difference between what VAR is designed for and what people are waiting for. This means that VAR won’t always provide a final. There will continue to be incidents when a final answer will not be given and there will be different opinions.”

Practice of match officials - Bright, brisk, and with flashy sunglasses - the way you have never seen him before - Collina detailed the finer points of the match officials’ afternoon practice to a small group of journalists. To his left, referees, eight minutes at a time, are practicing on-field-reviews. To his right, assistant referees have to flag for offside and receive instant feedback in a pitch-side black booth. The whole exercise, with a VAR undercurrent, requires up to 40 (youth) players, which the local football association had provided. This week World-Cup-bound referees from UEFA and CAF have come to Coverciano, next week the officials from the other Confederations will follow.

The Video Operation Room - Inside the small stand of the practice ground, a centralised video operation room (VOR) has been duplicated. The room contains eight screens, more will be used in the World Cup. VAR Pawel Gil from Poland is communicating with on-field referee Bakary Papa Gassama from The Gambia, one of Africa’s elite match officials. “Papa, papa, listen to me!” shouts Gil. “You awarded a penalty, it was a mistake. It was outside the box. Award a direct free-kick.” The tone of his voice is frantic. The VAR and his team wear track suits, so that their sweat caused by all the tension can be absorbed. As VAR, Gil has delineated tasks: watch the main camera on his upper monitor, check and review incidents on the quad-split monitor, which has a minimal delay. He leads the VAR team and talks to the on-field referee. The final decision resides with the latter.

The AVARS - Gil doesn’t ‘sit’ alone. He is flanked, to his left, by his compatriots Syzmon Marciniak, AVAR 1, and Pawel Sokolnicki, AVAR 2. As AVAR 1, Marciniak has to ensure the continuity of the VAR team, monitoring the live images when a review is underway. Sokolnicki’s task is also narrowly defined, but as important: as AVAR 2, located at an offside station, he anticipates and checks any potential offside situations to speed up the VAR checks and reviews. Brazil’s Wilton Sampaio is AVAR 3. In a support role, he masters the protocol and supervises the team. Even in a simulation, Sampiao is animated.

Papa Bakary Gassama during the FIFA Referee Seminar - Media Day at Coverciano on April 18, 2018 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

The VOR in Moscow’s International Broadcast Centre - During the World Cup the VOR will not be inside the eleven venues that will stage the tournament’s matches. FIFA chose the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in the Russian capital as centralised VOR to ease the travel requirements and demands on VARs. From the IBC the VAR team will assist referees. The German Bundesliga has applied the same approach. A VAR studio in Cologne serves as a central point for the VAR’s decision-making. In Italy, decision-making has been decentralised. At the World Cup, the VAR and his team will have access to 33 broadcast cameras; in Coverciano that number was limited to eight.

A delicate system of check and balances - That limitation deterred neither Gassama nor the VAR team. “Well done,” repeats Gil in appreciation of Gassama’s refereeing as the exercise slowly comes to an end. His voice is buoyant this time, transferring confidence and a message of belief to the Gambian. VAR is a delicate system of check and balances, one that FIFA, the world’s governing body, is seeking to fine tune ahead of this summer’s high mass of the global game. Massimo Busacca, Head of FIFA Refereeing, supervising, alongside Collina, quips that this particular team is a work in progress with potential. Ultimately, Collina will decide who will be the actual VARs at the World Cup. At present, thirteen VARs have been preselected.

Your friend from the outside - Gassama was a VAR at the 2016 Club World Cup in Japan. Last year he officiated Mexico - New Zealand at the Confederations in Russia. In the dying stages of the match, emotions boiled over and, having consulted the VAR, Gassama issued three bookings. “VAR is just like a referee, your friend [from the] outside,” offered the Gambian. He also stressed that the African continent is not lagging behind in the implementation of VAR.

Double offside situation - On the other field, linesmen must adjudge five sequences of two successive offside situations. They sprint quickly down the touchline. It is an exercise in positioning, concentration and interpretation. As soon as his sequences ends, Algerian linesman Abdelhak Etchiali disappears into the black booth for feedback. His existence is one of agonising exercise of centimetres, often millimetres. The review is based on images from two cameras. The key to the exercise is to delay flagging when the ball enters the box as to not kill the attack and allow the VAR to review potential game-changing situations.

Collina warns against perfection - “The goal is not to be perfect, but to be saved,” said Collina. “Referees are not fact-finders and they have understood that.”

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