When the talk of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) surfaced out a few years ago, a good majority of the stakeholders of soccer hailed the idea. I was a bit cautious about the idea after seeing the Additional Assistant Referee experiment in Europe. I am still cautious about the future of VARs. It is clear that the owners/presidents of clubs or in other words professional leagues want the VAR implementation with the hope that game will have less wrong key match-changing situations decided by the game officials. They are hoping that with fewer such wrong calls; their businesses will be less adversely affected.
We are talking of scandalous decisions that change the outcome of a game and even a tournament/championship. We are talking about “the hand of god” that scored a goal against England in the World Cup in 1986. We are talking about the hand of Henry which eliminated Ireland from the World Cup finals in 2010. We are talking about the phantom goal by Panama that kept USMNT home for the World Cup in Russia (or at least out of the playoffs). We can even add the flying kick of Nigel de Jong in the 2010 World Cup final that was not observed by Howard Webb, who is now responsible for the VAR project for MLS. We can keep on adding to the list.
Today the Bundesliga, Serie A and MLS are using the VARs and the related technology. FIFA have used the technology and VARs in various tournaments including the Confederations Cup. FIFA is ultimately planning to use it during the World Cup 2018 in Russia. International Football Association Board (IFAB) is planning to finalize their decision in 2018 or at worst in 2019.
The IFAB is working very meticulously with the project. Before it admitted the use of the system in its leagues, each federation has to go through long hours of training of VARs as well as off-line experiments. (Off-line experiment is one in which VARs watch the game through the broadcasters feed and comment on various situations, but they do not communicate with the referees on the field.) Once IFAB is satisfied with the training and off-line experiments, then the federation can go online. So it is a long and tedious process.
IFAB has decided to use the VAR system for a very small set of key match changing decisions -- or non-decisions -- by the officials. This list is confined to four categories:
Initially, I thought the list should include the second yellow cards but I changed my mind. You will see why I changed my mind if you care to read more.
What we will discuss is how effective or realistic it is to apply the VAR system to these four categories.
The fourth category is the easiest and the most water proof one. If a wrong player is shown the card or a player with a caution is cautioned again without getting sent off, the VAR system will help the referee not to make this key match -hanging error. We had seen how the VAR system helped the Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan to correct his decision to send off the wrong player during the Confederations Cup. (Germany vs. Cameroon). Hopefully, with the use of VARs we will not see Graham Polls in the World Cups sending off players after his third yellow cards (Croatia vs. Australia in the 2006 World Cup)!
The next category which will help the game most through the use of VARs is the goal/no goal situations. There are three sub categories in that category: a) Did the ball cross the goal line completely b) Was the ball out of bounds prior to the goal being scored c) Was there a foul or an offside prior to the goal?
The first two categories are rather easy. It is an objective decision whether the ball crossed the line completely or not. So the VARs can help the referee on these objective factual decisions. I believe Goal Line Technology (GLT) is a more reliable but more expensive technology for balls crossing the goal line. Without the goal line technology, you might be at the mercy of the positioning of the cameras. I watched the “phantom” goal of Panama several times. Due to the angle of the cameras and the positioning of the defensive players including the goalkeeper, I can never say with a 100 percent certainty it was not a goal, but GLT can.
The last subcategory of “Was there a foul a foul or an offside before the goal?” unfortunately partially falls under the category of subjective decisions. The VAR with a few millimeters of accuracy can decide whether a player was in an offside position or not. There is no problem there. The problem is with fouls and whether a player in an offside position is interfering with an opponent or not. Naturally, the other serious problem is the ball becomes out of play as soon as the referee stops the game by blowing his/her whistle. So the goals that were disallowed and should have been allowed will depend on the late whistle of the referee and the interference of the VAR. IFAB can think of changing the LOTG so that the referee can signal -- like an upright arm with a fist -- that the game will be reviewed by VAR if it ends up with a goal. If a goal is not scored in let us say n seconds, then the original offside or foul decision will take over like the advantage rule.
Law 5 clearly says decisions will be made on the letter and spirit of the LOTG and based on the opinion of the referee. Once we have opinion there comes subjectivity. Goals disallowed for fouls or for players in an offside position interfering with an opponent is a subjective decision.
Football is the closest game to soccer in the category of team games. NFL has been using video replay technology since 1999. NFL categorically excludes all judgment calls (subjective calls) from its list of reviewable plays and they did it with a good reason.
Although in soccer we have gray decisions and black and white decisions and IFAB calls these black and white wrong decisions as a “clear error.” The whole idea of a “clear” error is itself subjective. The refereeing circles define a black/white decision as a decision that less than a few per cent of soccer experts will disagree on. Fair enough, so the hand of “god” definitely falls under this category. How about very dark grey decisions?
The second category of penalty/no penalty has a subjective and an objective component to it. Whether a fouls is committed in the penalty area or not can easily be made by a VAR since it is an objective decision. Whether the incident was a clear direct free kick foul or not is a very subjective one. Under the lack of clear definitions for the 11 fouls – a clear definition is not possible – and under the unwritten fact that standards for a DFK and a PK are different, the VARs will have a difficult time identifying a clear case of foul or not. Add to that list the confusion of what deliberate handling is. This is inevitable.
Same is true for the third category. The decision that a foul is serious foul play/violent conduct or whether it is denying a goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO) - things are more difficult with last year’s changes to DOGSO and PKs – are very subjective decisions.
Basically until the issue of subjective decisions is resolved and it will not be resolved easily; the VAR system will stutter.
Let us look at two examples in two games where the subjective decision haunted and jeopardized the VAR system.
Case 1: The final of the Confederate Championship (Germany vs. Chile). The Serbian referee Milorad Mazic faced an interesting situation in the second half. The Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara had contact with German player Timo Werner. Werner went down claiming that he was elbowed on the face by Jara. The Germans demanded a VAR application. According to the VAR protocol they cannot demand a review. But Mazic decided to review the instance, following the protocol the VAR must have told him that there was a sending off incident. After reviewing the position on replay, Mazic showed a yellow card to Jara. The review cannot be made for a cautionable offense, so Mazic and VAR must have disagreed. This was a subjective decision. VAR thought that it was a clear red card offense and Mazic thought otherwise. Personally I thought that this incident put the VAR system into disrepute. The guardian angels of world soccer refereeing must have disagreed with me because Mazic is still being assigned important international games.
Case 2: A Bundesliga game (Stuttgart vs. Wolfsburg). The referee is Guido Winkmann and the VAR is a FIFA referee Deniz Aytekin. It is the famous goalkeeper Koen Casteels crushing Christian Gentner’s face incident. There was no call made. Both the referee agreed that “it was an unfortunate collision." So Aytekin apparently never activated the VAR system. What is interesting that the best German referee of recent times Marcus Merck thought that it should have been a PK and red card (for a second yellow) So if it was Merck sitting in Cologne in the DFB VAR center as the VAR some other decision might have come out. This is yet another example of a subjective decision. Both Winkmann and Aytekin did not think that this was a clear error but others thought otherwise. One should not forget that the referee crews show comradeship and will try to support each other as much as possible, the Mazic case mentioned above though is a counter example.
Bottom line is that as long as we have subjective decisions made through the opinion of the referee, we will have problems with the VAR system because the human factor still exists in the decision making process. Maybe we should leave out all subjective decisions from the domain of the VAR system like NFL did.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.