Howard Webb on the VAR project, what's working and the comfort of the words 'Check complete'

Veteran Premier League and FIFA referee Howard Webb was hired by the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) last February to oversee the testing and implementation of the Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) in Major League Soccer. MLS began using VAR in league matches after the All-Star Game and has continued the project in the playoffs.

Its use is limited to goal-scoring situations, potential red-card decisions, penalty-kick situations and cases of mistaken identity.

Webb spoke to Soccer America during the FIFA international break prior to the MLS conference finals.

SOCCER AMERICA: Before we get into a discussion of VAR and how it’s working in MLS as well as around the world, can you talk about what it takes to be a good referee from a mental standpoint? I know referees are tested physically and work on technical aspects such as positioning and communication, but how much psychological training is necessary?
HOWARD WEBB: For me, the psychological aspect of the game is really important. Officiating is a mental discipline as much as a physical one. You need that self-belief and that confidence on the field to be able to do your job, the same way the players do.

You’re not having to control your physical actions in the same way the players do. You don’t have to control a ball or head a ball or make a tackle. So a lot of what we do is based on the mental side of the game and a lot of that is based on some support with a sports psychologist. Most refereeing organizations around the world utilize to a greater or lesser extent some input from a sports psychologist and we do the same. At our regular camp,s we always have input from a resident sports psychologist.
SA: What are the toughest psychological aspects a referee has to deal with?
HOWARD WEBB: One of the biggest things we worked with – and I worked with when I was on the pitch – was how you deal with the feeling that you get that you’ve made a mistake, maybe a key mistake in the game.

You get those emotions within a few seconds of making a decision. One of the hardest things you have to do as an official is kind of part with that feeling and move onto the next situation, without being preoccupied by what’s just happened and possible consequences of what’s just happened.

That would sometimes show in your body language. I would be having a nice game, things are going well and make a decision that seemed to be straightforward but would give me an immediate feeling, from the reaction of the people around me and the clues I was picking up, that maybe I’d made a mistake. Trying to put that out of your mind is difficult.
SA: One criticism of VAR is that its use undermines the referees’ authority and confidence. But you contend it can greatly help a referee to have a backup system in place.
HOWARD WEBB: One of the benefits of [having] a video review system in place is you can take comfort from the fact that you know you’ve got an independent friend and colleague watching what you’ve just done and he’s able to intervene should you have made a clear error.

I’m pretty confident that when the officials receive the words over the radio, “Check complete,” which means, “We’ve looked at it from all the possible broadcast angles and I am telling you that in my opinion you’ve not made a clear error,” that must bring a lot of comfort to the officials and they focus on the next part of the game without worrying too much about what’s gone on before.
SA: Mistakes are inevitable and until now, there’s been no method by which to correct them, which is especially frustrating when they are glaringly obvious. How does the referee’s mindset change when VAR is in place?
HOWARD WEBB: It’s not an often talked-about consequence of video review but it’s a very important one: that psychological aspect that you know you’re being backed up by someone who can cover your back and intervene if you make one of those clear errors that officials sometime worry about.

And I made lots of them. I made some big mistakes. And now there’s somebody in place who can prevent those minutes or hours of worry on the field that could affect my performance. I think it’s a real benefit.
SA: A player might get a chance to atone for a bad mistake, referees usually don’t. How does a referee push through that sense of dread?
HOWARD WEBB: Some people are stronger than others dealing with it and the ones that make it to the top -- MLS level, Premier League, Bundesliga -- they are the ones who are more mentally resilient, which you need to be. In England, we talk all the time about what are the key attributes of a top official and mental resilience was the one that came on top of everything, absolutely.

You do need to be mentally strong, you do need to impart decisions, you do need to get on with the next one, but no matter how experienced you are or how long you’ve been around the game, you’re desperate to do a good job. You want to be a positive influence on the game, and get those decisions right.

Therefore, you can’t help but have those demons in your head at times, those voices saying, ‘You’ve made a mistake, you’ve made a mistake.’ Now hopefully those voices will be quieted because you’ve got somebody helping you.
SA: MLS is one of only a few leagues around the world using VAR, but La Liga will start using it next season and there’s interest in many other countries. How much sharing of information is going on with your colleagues in the Bundesliga and Serie A as well as other countries that are thinking of implementing the system?
HOWARD WEBB: We speak to each other on a quite regular basis, we share situations and clips. We get a sense of where we are in terms of how other people are doing it and how consistent we all are. Of course, we’re all working with the same basic approach although there some slight differences with the way certain things are being done in different competitions.

At this early stage, there’s no real right or wrong, I guess. It’s a case of looking at what works and what works well and what gets good feedback from the football community and what gets less positive feedback, and then refining it as we go along. That’s part of the reason we speak on a regular basis.
Here in North America, we have an advantage because of the familiarity with the use of video review whereas in Europe it may be less commonplace. I do sense that.
SA: Use of VAR in the Confederations Cup last summer didn’t go well and triggered a lot of criticism, but its use so far in league play seems to be working well. How often is it being used and how many calls have been changed?
We’re in a much better situation now to make a genuine assessment of what this can do. Obviously, it’s still fairly early. We started in round 22 and we’ve used it in 149 games. One tournament with 16 games is not a big sample size.

Overall I think we’re coming out with similar figures. We’re all looking at one review every three games, so we’re not over-using it as compared to elsewhere. We’re all pretty much in line with each other.

On 35 occasions this season we have changed a clearly wrong decision to a correct one. We’ve done it in a way that hasn’t really impacted the game too much. We’re changing one every three games and we’ve checked more than 1,400 situations.
SA: You are using a system by which the referee checks the replays on a monitor situated on the sideline. In the Bundesliga, video reviews are conducted outside the stadiums at a central location. What is the rationale for the process being used in MLS and what has been the reaction?
HOWARD WEBB: The VAR is part of the officiating team so he gives advice and recommendations as would the assistant referees. Having recognized a potential clear error, the VAR then selects the angles that he thinks give the referee on the field the best opportunity to make the right call. It may be that the referee who makes the final call may have a completely different opinion, and say, ‘No, I’m okay with my original call.’ It’s like having a safety net for a VAR who might pick their involvement in the wrong place.

That’s another advantage of using the review area, and there’s also transparency in the process. The referee, the man in the middle, is making the final call. He’s making the final call in every other situation in the game, and also he’s the person who you can see can be seen making the final decision. It’s not a person who can’t be seen and giving information over a radio to a referee who then suddenly makes a decision on something he hasn’t seen.

Our experience so far in terms of the feedback we’re getting -- not just here but globally -- is that football people prefer to see that process. They prefer to see the on-field referee having a look, checking with the VAR if a correct recommendation has been made, and make the final call.
SA: How do you assess the system in terms of your specified goals: rectifying clear and obvious errors with minimal disruption of the game?
HOWARD WEBB:   One of the most pleasing things for me was that people were speaking after the first couple of rounds, ‘Well the game is still the game. It’s still being played in the same way, we’re not having stoppages all the time.’

It’s not been perfect. We’ll keep working, trying to make sure our officials are consistent in their recognition of when this should be applied and when not to get involved. There have been some bumps but overall we’re pleased with having achieved those two goals: rectifying clear errors and giving the officials a tool to do so, and stays true to minimum interference.

There are some occasions we’ve identified where review should have happened and didn’t. All of us around the world are trying to make sure the VAR recognizes what is and what isn’t a clear error, so stay true to the principles. And on some occasions they look at something and suck through their teeth and say, “Ooh, that’s a close one,” and they decide not the change the call. Maybe the camera isn’t quite in the right place.

A couple of times we haven’t done that and we’re always trying to make sure we’re using it in the right circumstances.  Our most experienced VAR has done nine games and some have had more than 300 refereeing assignments in MLS, so you can see how new this still is.
SA: How is the system supposed to work when there is a very close offside decision? Several times in MLS the referee has blown the whistle when the flag goes up and a legitimate goal is called back because the referee’s whistle ended the play.
HOWARD WEBB: We’ve always said from the start to the officials, ‘Don’t change the way you officiate. Officiate in the normal way. We don’t want to change the way the game is played. Only consider the existence of a video referee after the decision has been made. Before then, make the best decision you can from the information that you have, and we’ll check it and if there’s a clear error we’ll intervene.’

The only slight difference with all of that is with this issue of offside and the fact that if we slightly delay the whistle we open up the opportunity to check the accuracy of a raised flag. One of the processes we’re going through is trying to educate our officials who for years and years found no benefit in delaying a whistle or a raised flag. We’ve always told them don’t risk unnecessary contact between players, don’t delay the whistle. Now we’re saying that if a team is in the process of scoring -- we’re not talking about the ball near the halfway line -- open the window of opportunity by delaying the whistle a couple of moments just to enable a chance to check.

What we do here is that we encourage the assistant to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team anyway, which will catch a lot of the situations, and we tell the referee to delay the whistle momentarily. We also tell the players, ‘Don’t react to the flag, react to the whistle.’

If all those things fall into place, we should be able to capture some situations that would have wrongly disallowed goals in the past.

Let’s be honest: the game’s all about goals, scoring goals is not easy, and if we have an opportunity to allow a legitimate goal surely that’s one of the best uses of video review.

SA: You had a long career officiating at the very highest level. What does this project mean to you personally?

HOWARD WEBB: It’s really a vibrant football community. I left a position in the Middle East to come here because I could just see the opportunity. I could see the way the game is going and I wanted to be part of this video-review conversation rather than just looking at it from the outside and I’ve not regretted it one little bit. I’ve really enjoyed my experience so far and I’m hoping to have a long-standing relationship.


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