Where the VAR 'controversy' is misguided -- and where it isn't

The first thing to say about the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system being used at the Confederations Cup in Russia is the calls upholding or overturning the decisions on the field so far have been correct.

And the Confederations Cup isn't the first time FIFA has tested VAR. It was used at the Under-20 World Cup, where decisions twice benefited the USA. One call disallowing a Senegal goal in its final group game against Portugal was the difference between the USA meeting New Zealand (which it beat 6-0) and Mexico in the round of 16. The second disallowing a Venezuela goal was the difference between the USA going into overtime and exiting after 90 minutes in its quarterfinal game.

And everyone should give the system the benefit of the doubt as Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi noted after La Roja's 2-0 win over Cameron on Sunday: "If I understand it correctly, we are trialing the system right now and there are maybe doubts because we are used to other situations in soccer. I think we have to wait and see and maybe as we start getting use to it, it will get better."

If anyone should have felt aggrieved by VAR, it was Chile, which had an apparent goal disallowed upon review by French VAR referee Clement Turpin.

Just before halftime, Eduardo Vargas scored and immediately celebrated with his teammates. On the Fox Sports replay, Aly Wagner confirmed that it was a goal, but what the television viewers did not know right away that the goal was being reviewed.

Sure enough, Slovenian referee Damir Skomina signaled the goal had been disallowed, which drew protests from the Chilean players -- and another replay that Wagner again said looked to show Vargas was onside. Joe Machnik, Fox Sports' referee analyst, soon thereafter said Vargas was offside and backed it up with a frozen image of the call. It was that close.

Late in the game, with Chile finally in the lead thanks to a goal by Arturo Vidal, Vargas scored again but the Chileans had to wait as Skomina signaled that the play was being reviewed. Fox Sports again went to the replay. This time, VAR confirmed the goal was valid, and the Chileans celebrated half-heartedly. The problem was, it was not entirely clear what part of the play was being reviewed.

FIFA issued a statement afterward:

“First half: Goal not given due to offside position of the player Eduardo Vargas as judged by video assistance referee. Second half: Goal given as player Alexis Sanchez not in offside position as judged by video assistance referee.”

That's easy enough for FIFA to say.

But if you followed the game live on social media or the post-game reports, VAR was the worst thing that ever happened to soccer with headlines like "Vidal, Vargas help Chile defeat Cameroon amid VAR controversy" (ESPN FC) and "Confederations Cup, Chile beat Cameroon, VAR controversy" (Fox Sports Australia).

The controversy wasn't with the VAR decisions but with the VAR system itself:

1. What are the situations in which VAR can be used?
2. Who decides whether to use VAR?
3. How decisive must the review be to change the original call?

Each is fraught with its own challenges.

1. The four circumstances the VAR referee can review a decision are only “game-changing” situations: goal, penalty/no penalty, direct red card/no direct red and mistaken identity. (Yellow cards are themselves not reviewable, so a yellow card that leads to a red card because it is the second yellow card isn't reviewable.)

2. The referee on the field decides whether to review a decision, either requesting that the VAR referee reviews an incident or agreeing to a review after the VAR referee communicates proactively with the referee about an incident. (The referee doesn't have to agree to go to the video.)

3. The referee’s decision can only be changed if the video review shows the decision was clearly wrong. (Which brings up the issue of what is the definition of what is a "clear error." The goal Vargas had disallowed for offside is a perfect example of this. But for video replay, few people would have had any real problem with Skomina's original call.)

FIFA has a problem because it is an institution with far from a stellar reputation. Already there were calls to scrap further tests after so-called controversial VAR decisions at the Under-20 World Cup (red card to Italy U-20 defender Giuseppe Pezzella) and France-England friendly (red card to French defender Raphael Varane). Criticism has mounted since the Confederations Cup.

One complexity for the use of the VAR system is the complexity of its protocols. The IFAB web site lists a dozen "principles" alone surrounding VAR.

One of them is that the referee is not permitted to give "no decision" and refer the situation to the VAR. That was one of the issues with the Varane red card. Italian referee Davide Massa pulled out his yellow card but never issued it to Varane. Massa seemed to make the decision only after after referring it to the VAR referee, fellow Italian Marco Guida.

Another of the issues, as Machnik noted on the Chile-Cameroon telecast, is that Skomina seemed to wait for situations to play out, knowing VAR was available if necessary. It will take time to appreciate that how referees on the field manage a game and how their decisions are reviewed might now be different.

Just as it will take time to accept the fact there will be breaks in the game for reviews where there were none before for a sport whose selling point, for many, is that it flows with minimal stoppages. (One big problem so far at the Confederations is the time it's taken for reviews is much longer than FIFA envisioned.)

But an underlying problem soccer has remains -- indeed, will be accentuated by the VAR system. Soccer is a low-scoring sport.

1. That means moments to celebrate are few and far between, and they will be muted because of VAR, as we saw with the Chileans.

2. Because soccer is such a low-scoring sport, decisions made by referees are always magnified that much more. We've already seen VAR's impact at a supposedly minor tournament like the Confederations Cup. Just imagine how players and coaches and fans, in the stands or watching somewhere else, will react to calls at next year's World Cup -- if VAR is adopted -- even with the best VAR protocols and a better understanding of them.

One other thing can't be forgotten. VAR isn't some foolproof system, video replay implemented to correct the decision of the referee on the field. It is adding another referee into the decision-making process.

Soccer has a problem because its referees, right or wrong in their decisions, often become over-sized talking points afterward. With all good intentions, FIFA has just added to that as VAR referees like Turpin and Guida -- even American Jair Marrufo in Portugal-Mexico on Saturday -- have become new talking points.

VAR referees will join their colleagues on the field and take away even more from those who should be our focus for praise or criticism -- players and their coaches who pick them.

13 comments about "Where the VAR 'controversy' is misguided -- and where it isn't".
  1. Mark Landefeld, June 19, 2017 at 10:26 p.m.

    It seems to me that whether under instruction or not, the ARs are going to keep their flags down on any close offside call for the simple rationale that a) if there wrong with the flag down, it's easy enough for VAR to signal and get the IFK restart, and b) if the AR is wrong with the flag up, it is difficult for a restart to restore the tactical advantage a team would have had in attack at the moment of the decision.

    The TV pundits are way too harsh about VAR right now. It looks to me like another effective extension of the referee team on the field.

    NFL referees have sorta figured this out with fumble calls -- better a late whistle that replay can fix, than a (mistaken) early whistle that might deny the correct possession of the ball.

  2. Craig Cummings, June 19, 2017 at 11:24 p.m.

    This is not working period.

  3. Nicholas Adams, June 19, 2017 at 11:48 p.m.

    This is just another example of the 'Americanisation' of the game.
    Whilst it can be beneficial in exceptional cases but mostly it just delays the game and stops the flow. Enough!

  4. Aaron Apruzzese replied, June 22, 2017 at 7:07 p.m.

    The first test case seems to be a British creation: However, if you would like to attribute accuracy in game calling as an American tradition, please be so inclined. Although if you wanted to be truly disparaging and accurate you should have said the "Americanization of soccer" (also a word distinctly British in origin).

  5. C Stephans, June 20, 2017 at 6:04 a.m.

    So far it has seemed to be a step backwards. But it is similar to the NHL's use in the playoffs. Even with video review goals were called back for dubious reasons.

    I fully expected Vargas first goal to be good after the var and the second goal to be called back for a previous offside like portugals first goal was. Portugals goal was disallowed for an offside call five kicks prior to the goal.

    How far back in the game can the var go to check for offside? This article brings up the point that FIFA simply has not proven trustworthy or consistent in prior international tournaments which doesn't help the matter.

  6. Gus Keri, June 20, 2017 at 7:51 a.m.

    So far, all the VAR decisions are correct IMO. People are not used to it yet and it will take time. But also worth mentioning that VAR has a bias toward less goals. On both the offside and PK decisions, VAR will only be used to cancel illegitimate goals. But there is no way to give a legitimate goal if the referee decision takes that opportunity away.

  7. Kent James, June 20, 2017 at 7:58 a.m.

    So, we have a system that helps referees get "game changing" situations correct more often, but the downside is that the players have "muted" celebrations? Give me accuracy every time. Mark makes a good observation (and the article points out that this is a learning period, to help get the logistics right). Give it a chance. Better a late, accurate decision than an early wrong one.

  8. Gus Keri, June 20, 2017 at 10:07 a.m.

    My advice to the goal scorers: Celebrate any way! If the goal was disallowed, oh Well, things happen. The high adrenaline surge from the celebration might drive you even more to score again.

  9. Tim Gibson, June 20, 2017 at 10:49 a.m.

    The 4 situations VAR can be used is over-complicating this. Keep it simple & review Penalty's in the box & goals only to start. Once the kinks get ironed out & it's determined to work OK...add Mo' if needed.

  10. beautiful game, June 20, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.

    Make the off-side rule applicable only if there is clear daylight between the defender and the attacker...hesitation by AR to call an off side and leave it to VAR to sort it out is a failure. And I agree with Mr. Gibson, keep it simple, just as the game should be played.

  11. John Soares, June 20, 2017 at 1:11 p.m.

    While I understand the "logic" of getting it right. It will not help the game "overall". Game stoppage is a terrible idea, ditto for reversals/approvals after a long stoppage. It is not just the "players" celebrations what about the fans? From now on should it be, do not get excited/celebrate until the "final" decision. Delayed celebrations...really!? Mistakes happen... we have always lived with them. It's part of the game. Also scary, we are headed down the proverbial "slippery slope". It's already been suggested (above) "start slow and add as needed". Hello American Football.

  12. Glenn Auve, June 20, 2017 at 3:11 p.m.

    Replay is being used in pretty much every other sport in the world at the highest levels now. So we ought to get used to it. Even a tradition-bound sport like cricket has adopted video as well as other technology to detect even the very lightest of touches of bat on ball.

    At least with offisde it's an objective decision. I think the bigger issue will be the subjective calls - fouls and misconduct which always look way worse when the video is slowed way down.

    I agree that the on field officials will quickly adapt and we'll see fewer offside flags on close plays. Frankly I think that will end up being a benefit and we'll end up with more good goals than ones taken away by a quick flag that is wrong. As to how far back they can go, I think in theory you can go all the way back to the last stoppage.

    One thing the TV producers will need to do it show us the freeze frame with the lines drawn sooner and for a longer period of time to analyze. Or there should be an explanation from the VAR or referee that is broadcast to everyone.

  13. Craig Cummings, June 21, 2017 at 12:24 a.m.

    If we keep VAR, lets put an AR in the booth with the 2 or 3 Refs. A full team.

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