Written by: Melissa Campos, Multimedia Assistant
The FIFA World Cup this year has been filled with many unexpected turns. From Germany failing to advance from the group stages to Russia unexpectedly making it all the way to the quarter-finals, I can safely say that this is the most unpredictable international tournament that I have ever watched. But another one of the most interesting inclusions that makes this world cup different from its predecessors is the debut of video assistant referees (VAR).
The International Football Association Board in Zurich approved the use of technology in the World Cup in Russia to assist referees in reviewing calls through the incorporation of video assistant referees (VAR). However, this technology is something that officials, players, and fans are not used to, and therefore it was bound to spark a controversial debate regarding its usage.
Let’s start by explaining what exactly VAR technology is. Think of VAR as an instant replay service looking closely at each play in real time throughout the game. The VAR team is made up of 4 FIFA match officials at a given time, with one being dubbed the video assistant referee (VAR) and the other three assistant video assistant referees (AVARs). The team works in a booth that has access to 33 broadcast cameras which include slow motion, super slow motion, and offside cameras.
The job of the VAR team is to watch the game closely and assist the match referee in making calls that he may not have had a clear view of. The video assistant referee communicates with the match referee on the field through an earpiece, letting him know if there is a possible call that should be reviewed. The match referee then decides whether or not to review the call on a screen located on field and possibly retract his initial decision.
What’s important to note here is that the match referee makes all the final decisions. The VAR team simply assists him, but has no final say in the call.
Since VAR reviews take time out of the game, the technology only serves to review a select amount of substantial calls. These calls include goals and offences leading up to a goal, penalty decisions (not to be confused with fouls – these are penalties awarded specifically inside the penalty area), direct red card incidents, and mistaken identity of players.
Before VAR, calls within matches relied solely on the referee and his assistants on the field; if the referee didn’t see it, play continued and the infraction went unnoticed. VAR technology has changed the game of soccer, with teams now becoming more afraid to commit fouls within the penalty areas or cheat their way to a win, as everything that players do is now recorded and being watched from multiple angles.
With the incorporation of VAR in the current tournament, it has been reported that teams have committed less fouls, been given fewer red cards, and scored more goals in the final minutes of a game in the group stage during this world cup than those before it. No one can argue that this technology hasn’t improved the accuracy of calls, and personally, I have enjoyed the lack of bullshit from players trying to sneak their way to the top that I’ve seen in previous tournaments.
However, the incorporation of VAR technology also comes with its negatives. A large complaint surrounding VAR is the disruption of gameplay that it presents, as it can take minutes for a referee to review a call. But this isn’t my biggest problem with it.
I love the concept of VAR. Other sports, like hockey and American football, have already been using instant replay technology, and it was about time that soccer did too. I was sick of all the penalties that were being missed and all the goals that shouldn’t have counted being awarded because the referee didn’t have a clear view of the play. Teams shouldn’t have the advantage or disadvantage of playing to the referees’ eyes; the game should be played according to its rules and VAR helps to enforce that.
However, the problem with this new technology right now is that it’s very inconsistent. Too much is still left to the discretion of the referee on the field, even though the officials in the VAR booth have the best view of the game.
The biggest example of inconsistency I can think of was in the penalty reviews in the Portugal versus Iran and Nigeria versus Argentina games in the group stage. After VAR review, Iran was given a penalty shot for what was arguably a very unintentional graze from the arm to the ball in the penalty area from Portugal. Similarly, a clear handball in the box from Argentina was reviewed, but the penalty was not awarded because the foul was deemed unintentional. Both cases presented very similar circumstances, yet the calls remained different even with VAR.
Maybe I hold a bias towards my team, Portugal, but these instances showcased that too much power is still given to the match referees who arguably do not have the best view of the game. VAR decisions should be more regulated and more final. The whole system is excellent, and I’m glad FIFA is finally using technology to review calls, but I believe referees should be overruled when VAR reviews are used.
Referees may hold bias, and like any other human being, they may also feel pride towards their abilities on field. But this should not be allowed to interfere with the game.
As for the interference of play, I think that VAR is handling that well in that the technology is only used to review significant decisions. Extra time is always added at the end of the half, and time wasted in reviews can always be made up then. I believe in fair play, and VAR is just the next step in improving accuracy and fairness within this sport that I love so much. While it has its issues, I believe we’ll soon be seeing this technology improved and changing the way that soccer is played for the better.