Commentary

The world isn't ready for a VAR World Cup

Less than 30 days until the World Cup, and less than 30 days before players, coaches, fans, team executives, journalists, and broadcasters wade into the cauldron of VAR completely unfamiliar with it.

Think about it. The vast majority of games played around the world -- club, international, friendly, whatever -- are played without video review. Give FIFA and the IFAB credit for conceiving, testing, and implementing a method by which crucial decisions can be evaluated and either verified or annulled, but in the first place, said bodies haven’t done a good job disseminating what has been adopted.
Everyone needs to be reminded that VAR is also shorthand for Video Assisted Review as well as Video Assistant Referee, who is a person, not the process.
(So what’s wrong with VR, as in Video Review? Never mind.)

FIFA can issue all the information it wants about the training exercises and instruction match officials have received about how the process works and its implementation, but the stark fact is that most of them won’t have used the system in a real game when Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off in the tournament opener June 14.

Unless everyone who will watch the World Cup has attended or viewed a game from the Bundesliga or Serie A or MLS, or remembers the 2017 Confederations Cup, said persons won’t have much direct background once an offside flag goes up and the ball goes in the net.

Confusion will be rampant as everyone waits for a minute or two or three for the play to be scrutinized by the center referee and video officials. Screens will show replays, announcers will babble, arms will be waved and fingers pointed, the center ref will gesture in one direction or another and/or move his arms in some manner, and the game will resume. Eventually.

In the Bundesliga and Serie A, a different method, even more mysterious, is used. Reviews are conducted by video officials in a central location, as is done by Major League Baseball at its offices in New York. In MLB, the decision of the Replay Official is relayed to the chief umpire, who signals the outcome once he is informed by headset. Baseball also uses a challenge system -- each team has two challenges per game -- until the eighth inning, when the chief umpire can use the system at his discretion.

Regardless of method, the bottom line is that most of the soccer world still has no idea of how this is supposed to work. So we are sure to see rampant inaccuracies in how these incidents are explained by journalists and broadcasters and FIFA has yet to issue any information regarding how the in-stadium audiences will be kept up to speed on what is being reviewed.

A big screen proclaiming “VAR” won’t suffice. What is being reviewed? Perhaps FIFA can use the same graphics employed for the statistics page used on game broadcasts:
 
-- assistant referees flag = possible offside
-- ball = did ball cross the goal line, review of play leading up to the score.
-- red/yellow card = sending off or caution.
-- figure of a player numbered by a ? = cases of mistaken identity.
(That last one probably won’t be needed.)
 
Despite considerable effort by MLS and the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) to outline the system, how it works, and when it can be used, game broadcasts often lack clear, informed explanations. Why this information can’t be relayed by the fourth official to a sideline reporter or someone in the press box is hard to fathom but it persists.

(The MLB protocol provides for broadcasters to hear the conversations the Replay Official and chief umpire during the review process. The chief umpire also informs the public-address announcer directly. What a concept!)

Now one must also remember many fans, and more than a few broadcasters and journalists, don’t know the rules of the game in the first place, and are even more sketchy about the procedures of officiating with video review.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I will state I passed a referee’s course more than 40 years ago and have officiated hundreds of games, at the youth, high school and junior college levels. I keep up with rule changes and modifications and am puzzled by many aspects, especially regarding handling the ball. But that’s another discussion. I am pro-VAR, for the most part.)

To illustrate how messy the use of VAR may be at the World Cup, one incident from an MLS game last week will suffice: the goal scored by Derrick Etienne in the 76th minute of New York’s 2-1 defeat of Colorado.

A ball was crossed along the ground from the right wing by Alex Muyl with Etienne closer to the goal than the last Rapids’ defender but level -- or nearly so -- with the ball when Muyl struck it. Defender Danny Wilson slid to intercept but Etienne got the decisive touch to redirect the ball into the net.

The flag went up right away, but referee Ismael Elfath did not blow his whistle until Etienne’s shot had crossed the goal line. Rapids’ players appealed for offside and both sets of broadcasters tried to figure out what had happened when the goal was awarded after a brief delay.

Some observers concluded incorrectly that the center referee had “overturned” an offside decision, some believed Wilson had directed the ball into his own net. Read enough comments on mlssoccer.com and other sites and you'll realize how few posters know the nuances of offside.

What had happened is that the system worked within its limitations, since judging whether Etienne was offside -- relative to the position of the ball -- could be interpreted either way. A lot of criticism was directed, incorrectly, at the match officials, who in his case did exactly what they are supposed to do in a possible offside situation. Assistant referees have been instructed for years to favor the attack but they are still supposed to raise the flag as they did before the advent of VAR.

The only real change is that referees are supposed to delay blowing the whistle unless they are sure the play should be stopped. And this has been an issue, according to Howard Webb, originally hired by PRO to implement the video-review system and promoted to general manager last January.

“We’ve always told them don’t risk unnecessary contact between players, don’t delay the whistle,” said Webb in an interview with Soccer America. “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.

“It will take some training because the referees have not done that before and it’s something we’ll keep working on.”

In the case of Etienne’s goal, Elfath waited for the situation to play out. If the shot had gone wide, the ball is out of play for a goal kick and no review is needed. If a save produced a corner kick, a review could still have been conducted and if Etienne was adjudged offside, play would have resumed with a Colorado indirect kick.

In numerous situations since MLS adopted video replay last August, referees have blown the whistle when the flag went up though replays indicated they should have waited. If the whistle blows early, the ball is dead and there is nothing to review.

Rapids color commentator and former U.S. international Marcelo Balboa thought a sideline replay indicated Etienne was barely offside, and this was judged from a still frame shown by a camera nearly level with the ball. In real time he said rightly, "That's tight."

Elfath consulted with VAR Baldomero Toledo via a headset but did not elect to consult a sideline monitor. This decision not to watch any video of the play also raised a few questions but Elfath is not required to use a sideline monitor provided for this purpose. Toledo may have told him there was no “clear and obvious” evidence that the goal should be disallowed for offside.

(Again, why can’t the process include a brief explanation of what was discussed by Toledo and Elfath and how the decision was made?)

In this case the judgment of whether Etienne was offside can be debated. The mechanics used by the officiating team cannot.

Yet if FIFA believes a few training sessions and seminars can ramp up its officials to handle such volatile situations in the intense firestorm of a World Cup – and that vitriol and misinformation won't erupt when the system is used -- it is living in a dream world.

The objective of VAR is to limit egregious officiating mistakes. This will happen at the World Cup but not without consternation, confusion and controversy.
6 comments about "The world isn't ready for a VAR World Cup".
  1. Ahmet Guvener, May 16, 2018 at 10:29 p.m.

    Excellent analysis...

  2. Marc Satterly, May 16, 2018 at 11:51 p.m.

    Many of the match officials will have used VAR at the U20 and U17 World Cups and at the Club World Cup. However that is still a very small sample size to gauge its effectiveness. It is still not as bad as Sepp Blatter mandating that any tackle from behind should be a bookable offense (2006 World Cup). That was truly a farce!

  3. Wooden Ships, May 17, 2018 at 1:09 a.m.

    Lets jump forward to 2030, how much interpretation-subjectivity will still be in play? The game is no longer the same, and us older farts won’t be able to say, “what did everyone expect?” Damn shame.

  4. beautiful game, May 17, 2018 at 4:55 p.m.

    It's conclusive; Howard Webb ilike VAR are a cancer to the game. FIFA's consistent resistance to safeguard the players on the pitch by not providing stricter enforcement of the LOTG is a cancer as well. FIFA is talking more about the $uper League than about retraining the referees for the good of the game. It's all about money, the single most evident source for corruption for all venues.

  5. R2 Dad, May 17, 2018 at 8:31 p.m.

    I think VAR is inevitable, though not sure which version will become the standard. The point Ridge makes about communication with the fans in the stadium will become more important in order to mitigate fan "misbehavior". I can see standardized screen shots of the ball, or a card (as he describes) in order to avoid playing the video clips that VAR is reviewing. THAT I can see FIFA doing in short order. Fans will call it manipulation, shielding them from the truth, but that's exactly how I see FIFA doing this going forward. VAR to protect the officials, not improve the game.

  6. Austin Gomez, May 18, 2018 at 3:01 p.m.

    In my opinion, some very interesting Points-of-Fact, made (overall) by the experienced SA writer, Ridge Mahoney.  But there seems to be One Mistake, that was written:  'the VAR-System' rules on only 4 Major 'CRUCIAL/CRITICAL' Areas.  Therefore, it would be incorrect to state: "If a Save produced a Corner Kick, a Review could still have been conducted' ---- No way, because the 'VAR' does Not comment on OFFSIDE/ONSIDE Decisons alone, (unless that missed OFFSIDE Offense would have immediately led up to a GOAL being Scored).  ..........  [Therefore, the Corner Kick must be given, even though the 'VAR' might have reviewed this OFFSIDE as being correct and thus an Indirect Free Kick should bE given to the DefensivE team.  ----  Most Wrong, this can Never happen.  ---- The 'VAR' does Not rule on a possible OFFSIDE/ONSIDE Decision by itself, (which may lead to either a Corner Kick or a Goal Kick, if the OFFSIDE incident was ignored).  The Corner Kick decision must be given by the Referee, (as per your alternative-narrative) .......  Just a Thought!

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