VAR: Fourteen screens on a mission to prevent another ‘Hand of God’

by Zeng Xiao, Tencent Sports

MOSCOW, June 20, 2018 – As the entire world waited for the first game of the FIFA World Cup 2018 to kick off, the broadcast switched to a room filled with few people focusing on computer screens. This was a historical moment, and those people are the Video Assistant Referees or VAR.

During the match between France and Australia, Antoine Griezmann dribbled into the penalty area and got tackled by an Australian player. Griezmann fell, but the referee did not blow his whistle. However, after the next dead ball, the referee decided to bring in the VAR. A few seconds later, a penalty shot was awarded to France because of the Australian player’s foul.

The VAR is not new to the football world, but this is the first time that it is being used in the World Cup. People have been wondering if the VAR would take the spotlight from the tournament itself.

How does the VAR work?

On the morning of June 9th, FIFA President Gianni Infantino opened the International Broadcast Center, or IBC. Many reporters arrived there on the day for a tour. The entire tour lasted three hours – there were six groups. In previous World Cups, the IBC would not get this much attention. However, the office of the VAR attracted lots of eyes this time.

There are two rooms and four sets of equipment in this office. Each set contains 14 screens and one green button, which connects the referee and the VAR.

Every match is overseen by four VAR referees. One of them is responsible for offside review, and the screens in front of him will provide the best angle for offside reviews. Additionally, there are four broadcasting directors who try to find the best camera angles for VAR.

In order to let fans know what is going on in the VAR office, fans will be informed about the review process by broadcasters, commentators and infotainment.

In the office, there are people responsible for controlling this system, which could inform others if the VAR is reviewing the plays and what they are looking at. Once VAR has finished reviewing a play, TV broadcast will show the VAR office. Although there is only one office for VAR, FIFA has done its best putting it under the spotlight.

The team consists of the video assistant referee (VAR) and his three assistant video assistant referees (AVAR1, AVAR2 and AVAR3). All video assistant referee team members are top FIFA match officials. The head VAR referee watches the screens tightly. Once there is a controversial play on the pitch, the head VAR referee would ask one of the assistant referee to analyze the play. Four VAR referees working together would increase their working efficiency and possibly prevent any controversial plays from happening.

It is not that easy to step into this office. The director of the Chinese Football Association referee office Hu Liu noted, “The referee has stopped the game, and is waiting for the decision from the VAR office. Everyone needs to make the correct decision as fast as possible.”

The Chairman of the FIFA Referees’ Committee, Pierluigi Collin, said, “It is never an easy job. VAR referees will never wear suit and tie in the office, because their work will make them sweat a lot.”

FIFA is very confident about the VAR. VAR refereeing Project Leader Roberto Rosetti said, “We are ready. The World Cup is not a place for experiments. The system has been running for two years and has been tested in many games. The operation was smooth, and the system would be well suited for the World Cup.”

The LED screen shows VAR reviewing a penalty decision during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group C match between France and Australia at Kazan Arena on June 16, 2018 in Kazan, Russia. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Controversial VAR

Since the beginning of 2016, FIFA Council decided to allow VAR to be experimented in football games. After that, the FIFA Confederations Cup, the Bundesliga, Serie A and other international stages started to use this technology, but controversies have always been around.

Last year in the Confederations Cup, the game between Chile and Cameroon used the VAR twice. Although the calls made by the VAR were all correct, it interrupted the flow of the game. In that tournament, every time the VAR was used, the fans would show that they were not enjoying it.

In the 2017-2018 Bundesliga season, the VAR embarrassed itself. During the game between Mainz and Freiburg, one cross from a Mainz player hit the hand of a Freiburg player. The referee did not blow his whistle, but he changed his mind after the first half had ended. He used the VAR and ruled that it should have been a penalty. At that point, many players had made their way back to the locker room, but they were called back on the field for the penalty to be take. This incident took a lot of time.

On January 25th 2018, during the game between Roma and Sampdoria in Serie A, the referee stopped the game and ruled a penalty long after a foul was committed.

In the Chinese Super League this season, the VAR has not been particularly successful. Chinese referees relied heavily on the VAR. In the first 11 rounds of the league, at least four games had extremely long stoppage time due to the VAR.

The VAR has brought lots of unexpected embarrassing moments to football games. Some referees did not review plays at the right moment, and some referees relied too much on VAR and could not make their own judgement. Meanwhile, because of the VAR, the competitive nature of the game has been limited.

During this year’s 81st AIPS Congress, Swedish referee Massimo Busacca introduced the VAR to the media. Many reporters asked if a 30cm offside would count as an offside. Considering the size of a football field, 30cm is not a big margin, but Busacca made it clear that 30cm would be enough for an offside call.

During the game between Shandong Luneng and Guangzhou Evergrande this season, the referee ruled off a goal with the assistance of the VAR, when everyone thought it was a good goal. After the game, the footage that the referees were watching was revealed, and the goal scorer was only offside by a tiny bit.

A general view of the Master Control room during the Official Opening of the International Broadcast Centre on June 9, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

FIFA New Regulations

Both FIFA and FIFA Council have made it clear about the use of VAR. Collina said, “The objective of the VAR is never making the call 100% correct. Instead, the role of VAR is to prevent big mistakes.”

On the official website of the FIFA Council, there are clear principles about the use of VAR. First, it should have the least interference for the biggest benefits. Second, the VAR will only be used when there is a clear mistake made on the field.

FIFA has made it very clear that the VAR is something that prevents obvious mistakes from happening. However, referees make the final decision.

But, there is no clear definition of an obvious mistake. There are instances in history that could possibly be called as an obvious mistake. For example, Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ and Frank Lampard’s free kick against Germany in the 2010 World Cup could be some of the obvious mistakes that FIFA does not want to see again.

Unfortunately, the use of the VAR nowadays is clearly not only for the obvious mistakes. Although FIFA mentioned the VAR does not need to make it correct all the time, but the referees do not want to miss anything. What is promising is that the use of the VAR in this World Cup is very limited.

In this World Cup, FIFA requests the assistant referees not to make offside calls immediately if they are not 100% sure. Instead, FIFA asks the assistant referees to wait until the play is dead and then communicate with the VAR. FIFA wants the game to flow.

In Russia, referees are still decisive, and they are not the VAR’s puppets. During the match between Spain and Portugal, Ronaldo was fouled by Nacho in the penalty box, and the referee decided to award the Portuguese a penalty immediately. During the match between Iceland and Argentina, one Icelandic player’s arm touched the ball, but no penalty call was made. Both referees did not use the VAR, which kept the games going smoothly.

Also, for the first eight matches in the first three days, there was no super long stoppage time added due to the VAR. However, there were also not many complicated situations during these games.

Some people say that the VAR has killed the uncertainties in a football match, but without the VAR, controversies will be around forever. However, some people do not want see the “hand of god” again on a football field.

If FIFA is ready to take the risks of losing uncertainties in football, FIFA then needs to reduce the damage of the VAR to the game flow. At least for now, the VAR is doing a pretty good job at the World Cup.

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