VAR and the insidious spread of technology

There are problems with the VAR system that FIFA has decided to introduce at the World Cup. That decision itself is quite likely the biggest of the problems.

It raises the question: is soccer ready for this? It’s true that a great deal of intricate work has been done on the system -- in workshops, discussions, referee training and live experimental runs.

Yet the most obvious result of all that work has been to reveal that this is a very complicated procedure. I’ll admit, I’m finding it mighty difficult to digest that anything as massive and enormously complicated as the VAR setup is really necessary.

Consider these two facts: the VAR (the Video Assistant Referee) will act -- and this is a point that is continually stressed -- only to correct errors in “match-changing situations”: goal or no goal; penalty kick or no penalty; direct red card or not; and cases of mistaken identity.

And before the VAR intervenes he must have spotted “a clear and obvious error.” A strictly limited number of occasions when the VAR might (i.e. he may or may not) butt into the game. The guys on the field -- the referee, his two assistants and the fourth official - will still be the guys in charge.

Maybe. For there is a clear shift in emphasis here. A look at the numbers tells the story. Just four guys on the field where the action is. But in the Video Operations Room (VOR) there are the VAR, his three assistants (AVARs), plus four Replay Operators (ROs) -- and a “FIFA staff member.”

Already more than twice the number on the field -- and that total of nine personnel doesn’t tell the whole VAR story -- because the complex technology involved in getting the right information (mostly concerning replays) to the right people as quickly as possible adds a contingent of vital technicians.

They will include extra cameramen. We are informed that the VAR will have replays from two “additional” offside cameras. That comes as a surprise. Offside calls are not mentioned among the VAR’s areas of interest. But there is a catch-all phrase in the list of VAR duties -- “serious missed incidents” -- a phrase that almost dictates the use of those “additional” offside cameras and their no-doubt millimetric judgments.

The shift I mentioned above thus becomes clear: from decisions made on the field to decisions made in the VOR, from decisions made by human eyes and judgment to decisions made by implacable technology. Another irritating sign of technology’s presence is the growing number of abbreviations: make sure, before you settle down to watch the World Cup, that you understand what they all mean: VAR, AVAR, RO, VOR, RRA, OFR for a start, though more, no doubt, are on the way. I’m betting that “serious and obvious error” becomes SOE. Maybe that’s already happened.

Another shift is worth mentioning: who on earth can afford all this extra expense in equipment and personnel? Only the pros, obviously. There can be no VARs and replay reviews for the vast majority of soccer games played under much more primitive conditions. This further distancing of the pros from the grassroots is no longer simply a matter of the pros having better facilities, playing fields etc, and more experienced referees. The pro game is now operating not just in a better world, but in a different world, a world where technology is vital. The previous introduction of GLT (goal line technology) looks increasingly like the thin edge of the wedge.

Well, we were warned about that. As someone who always supported the idea of referees having immediate access to vital replay evidence, I was well aware of the warnings -- but I felt they were exaggerated, that technology could be kept within limits.

I’m not so sure now. Technology knows no limits. Its clarity and its certainty (or at least, its claims to certainty) give it a creeping beauty. It will spread. It has done that very quickly in soccer.

The original vision of the VAR as someone who speedily corrected wrong calls (though one of the most contentious of these calls -- the goal line calls -- had already been taken over by GLT technology) is no longer so appealing.

Partly because his decisions don’t come as speedily as one would like. Something of a mystery, that. He is supposed to be dealing only with “clear and obvious errors” -- words that leave no space for doubt or delay (and certainly do not, in my opinion, allow for microscopic reviews of offside calls).

The delay of game while a VAR decision is pending is not to anyone’s liking. That an anonymous referee can suddenly silence players and fans who have just been deliriously celebrating a “goal” does not go down well. It certainly ruins an emotional moment -- and it cannot be guaranteed that the VAR decision is always the right one,

One of my first memories of such a VAR occasion is of an MLS game in which a goal was scored, and then, after a delay, disallowed because the VAR had detected a foul at the very start of the buildup -- way back down the field, just outside the scoring team’s own penalty area.

That incident raises another incipient problem with VAR decisions. The possibility that they will end up nixing more goals than they permit. Is it possible that VAR is anti-goalscoring right from the start? I have previously pointed out that when the USA’s referee boss Howard Webb made a series of neat videos to explain the VAR system, he used 11 replay clips to make various points. Nine (81%) of these cases involved canceling goals, penalty kicks and red cards given by the referees.

Which would appear to show an enormous bias in favor of defenders. I was reminded of this while watching a recent FIFA/IFAB video explaining VAR for 2018 World Cup watchers. A professionally produced video that does a good job telling how a decision is reached by the VAR and how that decision is relayed to the referee -- and how it will be explained to fans on the giant screen in World Cup stadiums. So we get a huge image of a stadium screen on which is displayed massive lettering ... NO GOAL/OFFSIDE.

Again, a negative anti-scoring message is considered a good example of what the VAR will be doing. And this one is based on a review of an offside call.

VAR will not do itself any favors in Russia if it indulges in too many game interruptions. Particularly if those interventions result in canceling goals that have already been celebrated. The VAR motto, frequently expressed, is Maximum Benefit with Minimum Interference. An excellent notion -- one that will need to be rigorously enforced in Russia if the blight of techno-spread is to be resisted.

16 comments about "VAR and the insidious spread of technology".
  1. uffe gustafsson, June 13, 2018 at 9:59 p.m.

    Paul the one thing VAR will do is your pet peew is limited the yellow card for diving.
    ref will see if it’s a dive or contact from VAR.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, June 13, 2018 at 11:49 p.m.

    Uffe, that is still subjective on many occasions. Futbal purists have been ignored and now that we are more enlightened and just, the futbal playing world will be better. NOT.

  3. frank schoon replied, June 14, 2018 at 9:14 a.m.

    Uffe, you can't measure Intention.This is why this whole VAR needs to be thrown out the window for it is creating more problems. Soccer has done just fine for over a hundred years...

  4. beautiful game, June 14, 2018 at 8:46 a.m.

    More cameras on the pitch equals more time on VAR reviews. BTW, the fourth official is a meaningless reference as an "official". What does this #4 do besides substitutions and and handle the clock message for "added time". Never have I seen #4 engaged in trespass of LOTG by a player. #4 should be called "sub-time keeper" and nothing else.

  5. Kent James replied, June 14, 2018 at 9:37 a.m.

    Having been a 4th official on professional matches, I can tell you it is a job totally without reward.  I thought it would be great, getting close to the action but without the responsibility of making all the calls.  Instead, it deals with all the pain in the rear stuff (all the administrative stuff, and "handling" coaches), and much of the former does not allow room for errors (and it's not something referees do every day, nor is it intuitive), and since you're always being assessed on professional games, it's easy to screw up.  At the highest levels, the 4th official takes over for the CR if he is injured. (and now with headsets, the 4th can provide another set of eyes, often watching areas the CR can't see, such as off the ball).  So don't disrespect the 4th official, their job is thankless enough already... 

  6. R2 Dad replied, June 15, 2018 at 11:38 p.m.

    "keeper of the technical areas"?

  7. Kent James, June 14, 2018 at 9:32 a.m.

    Paul, don't be a Luddite...yes, technology has its problems, and it will take some getting used to, and if it's primarily used to overrule goals and pks, it will reduce the scoring a bit (but if you could eliminate all the bad goals and bad pk calls, wouldn't that be an improvement?), but I think if it serves to correct some game changing errors, it's worth it.  And if used properly, some of your concerns can be alleviated.  For example, if VAR will be used to overrule goals because of an uncalled offside infraction, ARs can only call very obvious offside calls, allowing close ones to carry on.  In that case, the game is disrupted less (so it provides more game time) and you would never have a goal scoring opportunity denied because of an overzealous offside call.  Likewise, if VAR is used to call fouls missed by the referee, we could eliminate some of the thuggery you so rightfully complain about.  As with most technology, it's usefulness will be the way we use it.  But it's certainly worth trying...

  8. beautiful game replied, June 14, 2018 at 10:25 a.m.

    KJ, those fourth sert of eyes you speak commented on is meaningless when the "official" keeps mum and disregards a blatant violation of LOTG.

  9. Bob Ashpole, June 14, 2018 at 3:48 p.m.

    IMO relatively inexperienced view (compared to lots of you guys) I think a better change is 2 more assistants, one for each end line. The means the end lines will be better covered and the viewing angles for fouls and misconduct will be better covered by the assistants too.

    We already have a proven way of working between referees and ARs which I assume will work just as well with ARs on the end lines. 

    Didn't FIFA try this out in some competition a few years back?

  10. uffe gustafsson, June 14, 2018 at 5:56 p.m.

    I believe the 4th official is there to be a back up if any of the field refs get hurt and can’t continue.
    and my comment on VAR is only about Paul not agreeing w some of the yellow card for diving.
    im neutral for now on VAR let’s see at this WC how it pans out. I’m certain that marodonna and Henry don’t want it.LOL

  11. uffe gustafsson, June 16, 2018 at 9:37 p.m.

    So far I think VAR been used spot on.
    today the clear penalty was only because or VAR telling the ref to look at it. And he saw what we saw on the reply. And it really didn’t affect any real time on the field. So I think for now it’s been doing it’s job.

  12. uffe gustafsson, June 18, 2018 at 9:11 p.m.

    So so far VAR been doing a good job.
    here is a question for you.
    we had 2 penalties awarded by VAR telling the referee to look at situations and agreed with VAR.
    take a statistical view and you see that refs miss a lot of fouls that a clear fouls, especially in the penalty box.
    VAR is here to stay. 

  13. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 9:50 a.m.

    My previous post seems to have gone, ahh.. .south of the border, or moder ate it.

    Essentially, my birth country is highly discriminated against due to it's achievements despite it's small size.  Most likely because too many people disdain one individual who may just be the best player ever but is likely to fall or dive when breathed upon, don't let that cloud your

  14. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 9:55 a.m.

    perception is the game of the name

  15. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:35 a.m.

    Sorry about that, and other things

  16. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:45 a.m.

    Today is withdrawal day.  Brring it on tomorow and thereafter decision day

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