In January this year, Professor Werner Helsen, full-professor of movement control and neuroplasticity research group from University of Leuven, presented the findings of a two-year study on VAR to International Football Association Board. And later in March, FIFA announced that VAR would be used in the world cup in Russia. The Indian Express spoke to Werner to understand the objections and controversies that VAR has thrown up during the tournament.
How many matches did you study before advocating VAR, and what were your findings then?
VARs were used by over 20 associations and competitions in nearly 1,000 competitive matches and around 700 friendly, training and youth games around the world. We could see that from the initial accuracy of 93%, with VAR, we moved to 98% — a significant rise. The average playing time lost due to VAR was just 55 seconds.
Should players be given a chance to call for VAR, like hockey?
I will give you the answer of the coaches. There have been number of interactions with professional coaches and they are not in favour for this. They feel that it will be misused for tactical reasons. If one team is really in the flow, then the fear is the other coach can manipulate a foul or do something to intervene the flow of the game with a VAR referral. Not because they see any validity in the call but just to stop the game.
There was an argument early in the tournament that, in crunch moments, decisions have favoured the bigger team. Your take?
I have seen whatsoever no evidence for it. I think many people are biased – particularly when they lose the game! And that spills over. But by the end, I think even those voices of dissent have got smaller.
Is there a risk of some minor fouls being magnified and viewed differently when reviewed in slo-mo?
There is a clear difference between real dimensional and slow-mo. That was one of the key findings of the research we published very recently. Real time can be used to assess the intensity of the tackle. Whereas if you do that (try to assess the intensity) via Slow-motion, the intent comes across as much bigger, much harsher, and much deeper. Therefore, slow motion should not be used to assess the intensity of a tackle. VAR slow motions can be used to assess whether the foul is committed or not inside or outside the penalty area.
In fact, in United States, the law courts don’t allow to use slow motion in such cases, as slow motion presents a different reality to the real time view of the incident. Our results provide evidence that speed of video replay can have an big impact on disciplinary decision given by the referee in case of foul play.
So that’s factored in the way it’s used in football
It’s very very clear in the communication and in our research and those who handle VAR are very well informed about it. They know very well about what incidents they have to use real time, and when to go for slow motions. This is part of their education.
Should the conversations between VAR and main ref be made audible to those in stadium and watching on TV? Other sports follow that policy.
FIFA has been very proactive, if you go back two years and if you had said that there would be VAR in world cup, people would have said, ‘you are crazy’. Going forward, I am sure they will consider after the world cup if tools like making conversations audible to fans be used or not.
What’s now ahead for VAR?
For now, we are preparing the country reports. Each individual country will receive their information and compare the data from worldwide. We have studied 2000 games in all. The training of human factor remains the most important one.
Were there any objections in the VAR process? Is this how the VAR was originally planned or has FIFA modified it/deviated from original plan?
No, I won’t say there were any great objections. People were on board that we should embrace everything that can make the game better. This is a big step forward. We are always looking to make people better, improve players, game, and referees. FIFA contacted us, my group was one of the leading groups in world in this kind of research, and they approached us. I am happy to be involved. It was a huge project but it may change the future of football forever.