While speaking to reporters Friday at a VAR briefing in Moscow, Collina cited some remarkable statistics: of the 335 incidents checked during the 48 first-round matches, referees made the right call 95 percent of the time. Use of VAR increased that figure to 99.3 percent after 14 of the incidents were corrected:
a) six penalty kicks awarded;
b) VAR confirmed foul committed inside the penalty area, penalty kick awarded;
c) two penalty kicks annulled;
d) two potential red card situations -- cautions issued;
e) two goals given after review for offside;
f) case of mistaken identity rectified.
“We have always said VAR doesn’t mean perfection – there could still be the wrong interpretation or a mistake – but I think you would agree 99.3 percent is very close to perfection,” said Collina, whose 17 years as a professional included seven Serie A Referee of the Year awards and a decade as a FIFA referee.
Collina shared a few other numbers: the first-round games averaged about 27 fouls and three and a half cautions per game. Those figures are consistent with those generated in many major leagues.
The most dramatic effect of VAR is the number of penalty kicks awarded. Four years ago, 14 penalty kicks were awarded during the tournament, 10 of which occurred in the first round. So far in Russia, 24 penalty kicks -- one for every two games -- have been whistled. Seven of those 24 were called as a result of VAR.
For the World Cup, FIFA is using 13 experienced VAR officials working from a central location, in this case, Moscow. They review the incidents and alert the officials working the game when they think the center referee should take a look. It is the same system used in Serie A, the Bundesliga, and the Eredivisie, but not in MLS, which stations video officials in a booth at the stadium where the game is being played.
The system was not used the first two days of the tournament. On the third day, June 16, three incidents were reviewed and each fell under a different category for the system’s use as well as the outcome regarding fouls punished by penalty kicks.
Referee Andres Cunha didn’t blow his whistle when French attacker Antoine Griezmann was challenged by Joshua Risdon of Australia in the penalty area, but agreed to review the incident when so advised by the Video Assistant Referee once the ball had gone out of play. Cunha changed his decision after reviewing the incident. He awarded a penalty kick to France and cautioned Risdon.
Whether there was enough contact for the referee to call the foul can be debated, but Cunha decided he had committed a “clear and obvious error,” which is the primary criteria of when the system should be used.
In the Argentina-Iceland game occurred an incident that some critics have used as an example of the system failing its purpose. The young Argentine star Cristian Pavon was tackled by Birkir Saevarsson in the penalty area without getting a piece of the ball yet referee Szymon Marciniak allowed play to continue and the incident was not reviewed.
In this case, Marciniak did not believe a foul had been committed, and his video colleagues apparently concurred. While this opinion did not jibe with that of many observers, the judgment of the match officials and their video counterparts is not subject to review. Critics contend that this incident was obvious enough for a review to be implemented and regardless of who is officiating it should have been.
What seemed to be an obvious penalty kick in the Denmark-Peru game wasn’t initially called by referee Bakary Gassama when Yussuf Poulsen felled Christian Cueva in the box. The video officials alerted Gassama to review the tackle, and when the ball was out of play he viewed the incident and the penalty kick was awarded.
The placement of a foul near or in the penalty area is subject to review and by this method did referee Enrique Caceres change a free kick to a penalty kick when Mohamed Salah was taken down in the Egypt-Russia game. Salah was held initially outside the penalty area and the review showed the foul continued inside the penalty area. Video officials instructed Caceres to award the penalty kick. Since the referee had already called a foul, the video officials were only deciding on a matter of fact: did the foul occur inside the penalty area, not whether a foul had occurred.
So will the use of VAR yield a relentless parade of penalty kicks as it has in the first round? Possibly, but more likely is that the on-field officials do a better job of recognizing the incidents that are fouls and those that are not, and defending players clean up their methods of stopping attackers. The view that players will be encouraged to dive even more than they do know is mitigated by the fact referees are also empowered by VAR to take away penalty kicks and perhaps issue yellow cards for “simulation” as well.
No hint of diving was involved in a play during the crucial game between Senegal and Colombia on the final day of play in Group G. As Sadio Mane drove into the penalty area, he was tackled by Davinson Sanchez and referee Milorad Mazic signaled for a penalty kick. Video officials advised Mazic to review it, and he saw that Sanchez clearly played the ball in making his tackle. Mazic changed his decision quickly.
Several reviews have dragged on for two or three minutes, which is another point of criticism that has been brought up during the tournament. According to figures cited by Collina, the average review has taken 80 seconds. How tolerable is this time frame depends on whether the system is being used properly as well as the time it takes and the ultimate decision.
VAR has come into play several times in another of its most important uses: offside decisions during goalscoring situations. Before the tournament began, Collina clarified the reasoning of why assistant referees were instructed not to flag when confronted by a possibly offside attack unless and until the ball winds up in the net.
“If you see some assistant referee not raising the flag, it’s not because he’s making mistakes,” Collina said. “It’s because he’s respected the instruction to keep the flag down. They were told to keep the flag down when there is a tight offside incident and there could be a very promising attack or a goal-scoring opportunity because, if the assistant referee raises the flag, then everything is finished.”
Iago Aspas equalized for Spain against Morocco in the 91st minute and the goal stood after video review. Use of calibrated lines on the replay showed that Mbark Boussoufa was close enough to his own goal to keep Aspas onside. Video officials are expected to rule on objective situations such as whether a player is offside, and in this case the evidence was clear enough where they could make the decision quickly.
(It was Moroccan player Nordin Amrabat who was caught on camera making the rectangular box sign with his hands and saying, 'It's bull****," after the tie with Spain. A few decisions went against Morocco during its three games.)
The flag also went up in stoppage time when Kim Young-Gwon of South Korea knocked the ball past German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to break a 0-0 tie as well as the hearts of German fans begging for a miracle to save their team’s World Cup. A quick review showed that though Kim was in an offside position, the ball had been played to him during a scramble by a German player, Toni Kroos, which nullified any possible offside ruling.
Where VAR is not intended to intervene are matters of judgment, as when a foul has or hasn’t been committed. Several incidents of pushing and grabbing have either not been reviewed or not changed upon being reviewed.
Video replays showed clearly that the Swiss goal against Brazil in their 1-1 tie was preceded by a push on Miranda from scorer Steven Zuber, but video officials didn’t suggest referee Cesar Ramos review it. The push was subtle enough for Zuber to get away with it yet also substantial enough to be called and the goal disallowed. However, if an incident falls into a gray area beyond that of a “clear and obvious error,” video officials are encouraged to not intervene.
Brazil also asked FIFA for clarification of a situation during which Gabriel Jesus was wrestled away from the ball without a foul being called. During his briefing, Collina was asked by reporters about incidents such as these and others involving Harry Kane of England and Aleksandar Mitrovic of Serbia. Collina has cited VAR as one way for referees and officials to reduce shirt-grabbing and grappling in the penalty areas, especially on set plays, and says he sees improvement.
“You might have appreciated there were some incidents that suddenly disappeared or started to be punished,” he said. “It’s impossible to be right from the start but because we noticed, we intervened and we fine-tuned. Things have changed during the tournament.”
The game is changing because of VAR and will continue to do so for quite a while.