“Why do we not have technology in football, I really can’t understand. A game of this magnitude – two of the greatest teams in the history of the Champions League is decided by a group of referees,” said a visibly frustrated Owen Hargreaves on BT Sport’s post-match show after Bayern Munich lost 4-2 to Real Madrid in the quarter-final of the 2016/17 Champions League. Bayern is where Hargreaves cut his teeth as a young player but his frustration was not just about his former club being knocked out of a competition that often defines their season. In that match, Bayern were shortchanged by an incorrect red card and two Cristiano Ronaldo goals in which he was blatantly off-side.
That was in April 2017 and just over a month before that David Elleray was making a presentation to journalists in which he introduced the Video Assistant Referee. It was not an entirely new concept. In fact, the first instance of VAR being used was in August 2016 between two teams from the USA’s United Soccer League and the first instance of it being used in a professional league game was in April 2017 in an A-League game between Melbourne City and Adelaide United in Australia.
Since then, the VAR has been used in a number of major leagues and tournaments, most prominently in the 2017 Confederations Cup. It will be seen next at the 2018 World Cup this week.
How it works
According to the International Football Association Board’s VAR handbook, decisions that are reviewable are goals, penalty/no penalty decisions, direct red cards (2nd yellow cards cannot be reviewed) and mistaken identity while handing out the red cards.
The Video Assistant Referee, according to the handbook, is just like any other of the assistant referees and any decision will be final only when the referee ratifies it.
Fifa has appointed 13 officials to perform the roles of VAR in the World Cup and they will operate from a headquarters in Moscow. Each match will have one VAR and a team of three assistants given access to footage from 33 cameras, eight of which record in slow motion. If the team discover an error, the VAR would then contact the referee on the field via an earpiece, advising him either of an error, or that they should check a decision themselves. The referee can then act on that information immediately or choose to review footage on a pitch-side screen. In the second instance, the referee can either revisit the original decision or leave it untouched.
Frank Lampard knows a thing or two about not getting a goal because of poor refereeing. His goal for England against Germany in the 2010 World Cup was disallowed as the referee ruled that the ball had not crossed the goal line after hitting the underside of the crossbar. It had crossed and it was visible in real time even to those watching on their television sets and the players in the dugout. A situation like that is now unlikely to happen due to the tried and tested goal-line technology but Lampard has stated his misgivings on VAR being used at the World Cup. “Goal-line technology was a no-brainer with that goal of mine. But VAR is going to be a huge discussion point. It’s too early. We’ve not got it nailed down yet. Different refs in different countries are having problems. We are not using it in the Premier League,” Lampard is quoted as saying in the British media.
“I just think we’re going to cause ourselves problems in the most important football tournament in the world. I didn’t see it needing to be rushed. The last thing we need is looking at whether that foul 30 seconds earlier affected that goal which might have been offside. It’s very complicated.”
Lampard is not the only one to have misgivings. A scroll through the news after the end of a match in which VAR had been used over the past one year would tell you that the terms most commonly associated with it is confusion, ludicrous, disastrous etc. while the more prudent commentators would say that it needs improvement.
So what is the problem with VAR?
The VAR came under significant scrutiny when it was used in the FA Cup. In a match between Manchester United and Huddersfield Town, Juan Mata’s goal was ruled out after the Spaniard was found to be offside via VAR. The rather crooked lines that were superseded on the pitch in the visuals to determine the offside was panned on social media. When the referee decided to not use VAR in crucial moments during the semi-final and the final, there were questions as to why players or managers can’t go for referrals themselves, as is the case with hockey or cricket.
The chief issue though, is that VAR interferes in the flow of the game, especially for those in the stadium. Unlike what is the case with DRS in a cricket match, visuals that the VAR uses and plays out to the television audience cannot be seen on the big screens in the stadiums. This means that players would have to wait for a decision to come through and VAR takes an average of three to four minutes to communicate a decision. Once it does, they are left to wonder how said decision came to be.
Just a VARy bad idea?
Diego Maradona said in March that his infamous “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup would have been disallowed if VAR was present then. Apart from such cases, players would also think twice before diving inside the box if such actions can be easily spotted and called out by the cameras. There have been many cases when erroneous penalties and sending offs have decided big matches and VAR is certainly a measure to curb players from provoking such decisions.
Gambian referee Bakary Papa Gassama had told the BBC that VAR can be equated to a new job. “Now, we are in learning process – people have to understand that. It is just like a new job: before you understand it, it will take some time. As time goes on, with this new technology, many referees and many VARs will understand better,” he said. Judging from the nervous glances that are being passed around the football fraternity as VAR prepares to make its debut in the World Cup, one gets a sense that this “learning process” may have been left a little too incomplete before it got shoved into the spotlight.