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.