Is Video Assistant Referee (VAR) the right stuff for football?

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Suresh Nair

FORMER world football supremo Sepp Blatter famously says “football will always remain a sport of mistakes”.

Technology or not, it appears that there is no fool-proof way to make the correct decisions all the time.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) agreed to a two-year test of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) in 2016, making goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity cases reviewable by match officials.

But VAR has been plagued by complaints about incorrect decisions, lack of communication over referee calls and delays to games caused by reviews in competitions, including the Club World Cup and Confederations Cup.

And in the latest embarrassing incident, Hawkeye (the VAR technology provider for the upcoming FIFA tournaments) have apologised after a faulty graphic caused confusion during a VAR review in Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth-round match on Saturday.

United midfielder Juan Mata thought he had scored a goal in the first half but his effort was ruled out after officials determined, using VAR technology provided by Hawkeye, that he was offside.

INCORRECT GRAPHIC IMAGE

The still image shown by broadcaster BT Sport to explain the decision contained an uneven line meant to show that Mata was beyond the last defender and in an offside position.
Hawkeye insisted that a correct image, with a straight line, was used to make the decision. However, the incident highlighted the teething problems of VAR being trialled in some FA Cup ties.

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday,” a statement from Hawkeye, who also provide ball-tracking technology in cricket and tennis, said.

“To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologise.”

Now with the mounting streaks of VAR controversies it is left to be seen if it will be used in June’s World Cup Finals in Russia.

Pierluigi Collina, the legendary referee who now heads up FIFA’s refereeing committee, is also happy. “We are in a sort of work in progress,” he says. “We see the very positive result we had but we are aware that we can improve. This is normal.”

MISTAKE CHECKER?

According to FIFA (the world football controlling body), VAR will be used for incidents involving “clear and obvious errors, or serious missed incidents, relating to specific incidents in three “game changing” situations – goals, penalty/no penalty decisions and straight red cards, plus mistaken identity for red or yellow cards”. It will automatically check every incident and if a clear and obvious error has occurred, the referee, is informed.

The Football Association (FA) chief executive Martin Glenn believes the VAR system will become a permanent fixture in English football. He says: “The FA generally thinks that in a few years’ time we will wonder how we ever lived without it, We were a big supporter of VAR being embraced in football after years of it being challenged by Sepp Blatter and FIFA.”

VAR involves a fifth match official along with an assistant watching the on-pitch action remotely and then drawing the match referee’s attention to officiating mistakes. The system has already been implemented in Europe. But a final decision to its longer-term use will be made by newly-minted FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who unlike Blatter, backs the use of the technology at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“Nothing is standing in the way of using VARs [at the World Cup], as far as I’m concerned,” Infantino says. “So far it has been successful. We are learning, we are improving, we are continuing the tests. Without the VARs, we would have had a different tournament. And a tournament which would have been a little less fair.”

To explain very simply, VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee. It is actually a team of three people who work together to review certain decisions made by the main referee by watching video replays of the relevant incidents.

That team is comprised of the video assistant referee himself (who will be a current or former referee), his assistant and a replay operator. They are situated in a video operation room which is essentially a bank of monitors offering different camera angles.

Four types of decisions can be reviewed using VAR: Goals (and violations in the build-up to them), penalties, red cards and mistaken identity in awarding a card. For a decision made on the pitch to be overturned, it must be a “clear error”.

The process for reviewing a decision can work in two ways; either the referee can request a review after making a decision or the VAR team can recommend one. In the latter situation, if the VAR judges that there is the potential for a clear error to have been made he or she can notify the referee.

THREE OPTIONS FOR REFEREE

The referee then has three options: they can immediately overturn the call based on the VAR’s advice, review the incident themselves on a monitor on the touchline or stick with their initial decision.

For the record, VAR is not currently written into the Laws of the Game, but is being tested in a number of leagues and tournaments around the world by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is responsible for those Laws.

It was first trialled in the United Soccer League in the United States during a match between two reserve teams of MLS clubs – New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B – in August of 2016. It has since been brought in by the A-League in Australia and MLS itself.

In addition, FIFA has got a closer look at the system at a number of its international tournaments, such as last year’s Under-20 World Cup and Confederations Cup. Germany, Italy and Portugal introduced it for the 2017-18 seasons in their top-flight competitions, while the Copa Libertadores had VAR from the semi-final stage onwards in 2017.

End of the day, it’s a case of better to have it than not.

“We need it,” Infantino makes it certain. “Every championship needs it. That’s being shown in leagues like Portugal, England and Italy at the moment. The definitive decision will arrive in March but we can’t imagine a World Cup in 2018 being decided by a referee’s error.

“You have to help the refs and that happens through technology. It’s definitely a forward step. You can’t imagine football now without VAR. It will end so many problems.”

Suresh Nair is a veteran sports journalist and also an AFC (Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Referee Instructor. He believes VAR, despite its teething problems, is a right step forward to minimise global football mistakes.

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