With the final now complete and the celebrations in Paris set to continue for days to come, it is fair to say that VAR has created quite a commotion at the 2018 World Cup.
Available for each of the tournament’s 64 matches, it seems the most controversial use of VAR was saved for last. As the tension of the later stages magnifies the importance of each match, decisions feel more pivotal and the pressure is on for officials to get even the smallest of them correct. But awarding a penalty in the World Cup final must be one of the hardest decisions of an official’s career.
The VAR plan
When FIFA announced in March that video assistant referees would be used at the World Cup there was some surprise, with many feeling that the system was not ready for such a big test. After trials in national leagues across Europe and the FA Cup in England, opinion was still divided. However, the system was working. Across 346 games in Serie A last season, there were only 17 errors. Without the use of VAR, instances of error were five times higher.
To encourage support for the new system, FIFA set out the following conditions for how it was to be used during the World Cup; each game is followed by officials watching multiple angles across 33 cameras. The on-pitch referee is still expected to make decisions. Only if there is a “clear and obvious error” is VAR allowed intervene.
The difficulty then is deciding what a “clear and obvious error” means.
Currently, the rule is that VAR may only be used to reverse an error for four key decisions:
In addition, assistant referees were encouraged to keep their flags down when offside calls are close, allowing the VAR team to decide goal or no goal rather than stopping the game for a reversed decision that may not benefit the attacking team.
This means that the officials on the pitch must still make a decision before it can be overturned, and the power stays with the man on the field – as VAR decisions are not binding, merely advisory.
However, it is this willingness to allow for human error that is making VAR confusing. VAR is unable to explain itself, with the review or decision only communicated by the referee in the stadium, and everyone outside the group of match officials kept out of the conversation. When a coach feels a decision has not gone their way this can be especially infuriating, as the referee is now able to pass away responsibility for contentious decisions.
This could lead to an increased reliance on VAR systems, and a reluctance to make big calls. But if the decision is ultimately correct, is that more important than the flow and feel of the game?
Like Brexit, this is not a discussion that is going to stop any time soon and consensus could be decades away.
VAR in numbers
The following statistics were reveaed by FIFA following their mid-tournament assessment of the VAR system.
The day after the final group game, Pierluigi Collina, the chairman of FIFA’s referees committee, announced that 335 incidents were checked, including all 122 goals, and the system resulted in 99.3% of decisions being correct, an improvement from 95% based on referee’s decisions alone.
The average VAR decision took 80 seconds, with an increase when pitchside reviews were needed. On average, each game had seven checks. This totals over 9 minutes of VAR decision time per game. While FIFA claim this time is added on, we have seen very few matches in the group stage that had more than 5 minutes added time per half – not a significant rise from a non-VAR match.
More penalties have been awarded so far (27) than any other 32-team World Cup, in part due to VAR decisions. In comparison Brazil 2014 saw 13 spot kicks. The previous record for a tournament was 18 from the 1990, 1998 and 2002 tournaments.
Analysis by The Telegraph after the first round of Group Stage games revealed the lowest average number of offside calls per game since 1966. This may be in part due to close decisions, which would normally be flagged, not being called but then also not being verified by VAR because nothing came of the move.
With just three red cards, the tournament is demonstrating a marked reduction in dismissals over recent tournaments, many of which had ten or more group stage red cards. There have also been no straight reds for violent conduct, suggesting that the pressure of the VAR system may be helping to stamp out violence from the game. But is it the glare of 33 cameras that’s forcing players to behave better? Possibly. Either way the reduction has been dramatic so far.
VAR in action
With over 300 examples to choose from, here are some of the biggest moments for VAR during the group stage and how it performed:
The first test – France v Australia
Day three of the tournament saw the first ever World Cup penalty awarded by VAR. Antoine Griezmann appeared to be clipped on the heels by Australia’s Josh Risdon. It was a close call that the referee waved away. VAR advised him to take another look and the penalty was given. The replays were fairly unclear either way, so was this a case of first-time nerves that made Andres Cunha defer to the VAR decision? An inconclusive start.
England v Tunisia
England’s first group match saw some very valid question marks over the implementation of VAR. Harry Kane was twice wrestled to the ground by Tunisian defenders during corners, but no action was taken.
If the referee didn’t see it, surely it is in the remit of VAR to reverse the ‘no penalty decision’ if a foul is spotted? It could be that England players were also committing fouls during the jostling and so the decisions offset. The trouble is, without clarity and explanation, nobody will ever definitively know what happened. For the team that doesn’t get the penalty, it’ll no doubt feel as though the system has failed, especially if this were to happen in a knockout situation.
Spain v Morocco and Portugal v Iran
The importance of delivering the correct decision was shown in Group B’s final matches. With Spain and Portugal playing in simultaneous matches for top spot, late decisions changed the destiny of the group and sent Portugal to face Uruguay on the more difficult side of the draw. The VAR decision to give a penalty against Cedric Soares for handball was soft, but consistent with the decisions given in other matches in the tournament. Played without VAR and with incorrect decisions standing, the shape of either team’s campaign could have been changed dramatically. For better or worse, neither side can be aggrieved by correct decisions.
South Korea v Germany
It took some time to settle, but VAR’s correction proved the system’s worth in stoppage time of Group F’s final matches. A near post corner took a number of deflections before Kim Young-Gwon was able to poke it into the net, potentially condemning Germany to a shock early exit. At first it looked as if the Korean celebrations were in vain due to an offside flag, but VAR was able to show that the final touch was from a German player, meaning the goal stood and the hard work of the South Korean team did not go unrewarded.
For anyone who claims that VAR stoppages kill the tension and excitement of scoring a goal, the South Korean celebrations should make it clear that the opposite is true.
Brazil v Belgium
After a mid-tournament review by FIFA it seems that the use of VAR has been toned down for the later stages. Noticeably fewer stoppages for VAR checks suggest that referees are trying to be subtler with their use of the technology. The only major incident in the Quarter Final stage was Vincent Kompany’s lunging tackle on Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus. The referee did consult VAR but decided to not give the penalty which, at 2-0, Brazil desperately needed.
It is hard to see why the decision was not given, but it could be due to a number of factors including rushing in an effort to reduce stoppages or the referee overruling from the pitch. Whatever the reason, this is one of the most baffling decisions of the tournament.
The penalty – France v Croatia
In the biggest match of his career Argentine referee Nestor Pitana was faced with a huge call as Samuel Umtiti’s pass struck the left arm of Ivan Perisic. Initially he did not award the penalty, but with the assistance of VAR’s touchline screen the official was able to re-assess the decision by viewing different angles of the incident and chose to award the penalty.
Why many people feel this was a bizarre decision, VAR did exactly what it was supposed to under the circumstances – allow the referee on the field to make his decision based on more than just his initial reaction.
So where does this leave us?
Harrod Sport, suppliers of Wembley Stadium’s posts are familiar with innovation in sport, having been involved in consultations over the introduction of goal-line technology. In their view it may take some time for VAR to find its feet, but it’s a tool the sport has been in need of for some time.
“The aim of VAR was not to achieve 100% accuracy for all decisions in football, as this can risk losing the emotions and flow of the game.” Says Harrod Sport’s Molly Spring. “The vision is to create a much fairer game, enabling the referee to have a second chance to look at foul-play. VAR will alter the future of football, however as fans, players and referees adjust to this new innovation, football will fairer because of it.”
Critics may say that video review will slow down the game, reduce the drama and take the excitement out of the match, but so far this World Cup has not suffered on these fronts. Awaiting a VAR decision is often as quick as the time spent with players surrounding the referee. If the system becomes more accepted, it could result in less dissent and fewer dives, which can only be good for the game.
There is a lot of work to be done to convey decisions to the fans in the stadiums, to speed up decision making and deliver clarity on when and how this tool should be used. While it is not perfect, the intentions and indications suggest that it is ultimately a positive evolution of the beautiful game.