Friday 19th April 2019


World Cup Debut of VAR Has Improved Refereeing Calls

World Cup Debut of VAR Has Improved Refereeing Calls

World Cup Debut of VAR Has Improved Refereeing Calls
Colombia players confront referee Milorad Mazic and signal for VAR after he awards Senegal a penalty during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Mazic rescinded the decision after reviewing VAR footage. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The common language of soccer players isn’t spoken, but a collection of hand signals and gestures. They shake their arms to signal a hand ball, tug their jerseys to convey that an opponent has been grabbing their kit, or hold up imaginary cards to insist that a caution-worthy infraction has taken place. At the World Cup, where players from 32 countries speak dozens of languages, there is often no other shared way to communicate with others or the referee. 

The latest entry in soccer’s sign language involves miming the outline of a rectangular box. In words: “Please consult the television replay.” The introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) at this summer’s World Cup has precipitated frequent calls from players and coaches imploring the referee to check the video.

World Cup referees have done just that, overturning 16 calls over the first 62 matches. No doubt more players will communicate their preferences to referee Nestor Pitana in Sunday’s final between Croatia and France.

“This is progress,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino at a press conference in Moscow. “This is better than the past. VAR is not changing football. VAR is cleaning football. It is making football more honest, more transparent.”

Howard Webb is the general manager of the Professional Referee Organization that oversees MLS officiating. He has overseen the implementation of the VAR system in MLS and endorses its value from his own experience. In 2010, Webb became the first person to referee both the World Cup Final and the Champions League Final in the same year.

“Going into any games, but especially in preparing for games of this magnitude, video review gives referees the confidence of knowing that their most career-defining decisions will be checked, analyzed, and will not have a negative impact on the game,” Webb wrote in an email to SportTechie.

Hawk-Eye Innovations is providing VAR’s video technology with audio from Crescent Comms. While MLS operates video review rooms on site, FIFA is following the lead of Bundesliga (and the NFL and MLB in other sports) with a centralized replay room in Moscow, which receives at least 33 camera feeds per match via fiber-optic cables. FIFA staffs the lead VAR with three assistants, AVAR1, AVAR2, and AVAR3. The system doesn’t litigate every call but focuses on the ones of greatest consequence: goals, penalties, red cards, and mistaken identity (for all cards).

A general view of the Video Assistant Referee’s Room in the International Broadcast Centre in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Only the VAR can recommend the on-field referee review a particular play. While all goals and red cards are checked, as well as other questionable plays, only a small percentage of them result in the referee stopping play to consult a touchline monitor. Through the 62 matches entering the weekend, the VAR had checked more than 440 incidents (about seven per match), and from those 19 (about 4 percent) were formally reviewed.

“At the center of the decision-making process, there is the referee,” said FIFA’s VAR project leader, Roberto Rosetti, at a press conference in Moscow. “The VAR doesn’t decide. The VAR just recommends an on-field review. At the end of the situation, only the referee has to take the final decision. This is the difference between interpretation, subjective decisions, and factual decisions. For all interpretations, we want the referee at the center of the decision-making process.”

The big screen inside the stadium shows VAR in use for a penalty review. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The chairman of FIFA’s Referees Committee, Pierluigi Collina, said that 95 percent of decisions that had the potential to alter a game’s result were already correct, but that success rate reached 99.3 percent with the aid of video review through the 48 group-stage matches. (The number through the semifinals was 99.2.)

“Something that’s always been said—VAR does not mean perfection,” Collina said. “But as you can see, 99.3 per cent is something that is very, very close.”

The system correctly overturned a penalty kick awarded to Brazil’s Neymar in a game against Costa Rica—the foul proved to be a theatrical flop—but drew rebukes from Morocco’s federation, which claimed the technology was not used equitably.

By and large, VAR seems to have worked well. Former U.S. national team player and current Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas deemed the system “an undeniable success,” tweeting that VAR has been “accurate and consistent.” There have been no technical malfunctions, either, such as the one during Australia’s domestic championship in May.

“Video review has been a positive addition to competitions around the world, including in MLS and at the World Cup,” Webb wrote. “As we have seen in MLS, referees have welcomed the opportunity to work with this new tool, which has helped identify clear and obvious errors in game-changing situations.”

There have been no red cards issued for violent conduct at this World Cup, which Infantino attributed to the all-encompassing coverage of three-dozen cameras. While some calls will remain subject to interpretation—Was there enough contact between Costa Rican defender Giancarlo González and Neymar to warrant a penalty?—the binary decisions are clear.

“I don’t know if you realized, but the goal on offsides is finished in football—at least in football with VAR,” Infantino said. “You will never see anymore a goal scored in an offsides position again. It’s finished. Either you are or you are not offsides.”

Referees are used to being the boss on the field and, while they still have final authority, they have been asked to accept additional input. Before the World Cup, Collina instructed assistant referees not to call offsides and instead to defer to the VAR. An incorrect whistle halting a scoring chance cannot be corrected, but overturning an apparent goal due to an infraction can be made right.

“Believe me, it’s not easy,” Collina said, later adding: “I want to thank you very much, all of the referees here at the World Cup, for how they have accepted to approach differently the match.”

Referee Nestor Pitana reviews the VAR footage. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Players surveyed by Bleacher Report had mixed feelings about VAR but generally accepted it. The fear is that the technology would interfere with the pace of the game and that it would interrupt the match, but Collina recognized that a number of the World Cup complaints came from the times the VAR was not summoned.

All in all, VAR has provided a failsafe against the most egregious errors.

“I don’t think that even the best referee in the history of football would have been happy to make a decision and see a few seconds later or a few minutes later or a few hours later that that decision was wrong,” Collina said. “Today the technology offers the possibility to know immediately if the decision taken on the field of play was good or not.”

He would later add, “This is the present of refereeing.”

Related

  • Twitter Study Reveals Differences Between World Cup Fans

  • Goal Data Might Be the Biggest Predictor of Success at the World Cup

  • More Than 5,000 Pirated World Cup Streams Detected by Irdeto

  • African World Cup Teams Collaborated With FieldWiz to Benefit Continent

  • Inside the Use of In-Game Tracking Data at the World Cup

Must read×