Why World Cup VAR was sorely needed and how it succeeded

Here's how World Cup soccer used to work: 1 billion people get to see a replay of a crucial incident but the most important person doesn't have access.

This is not an exaggeration, because the TV viewership of a World Cup final is about 1 billion. The referee is trying to keep track of 22 players roaming more than 7,000 square yards, with minimal help by two linesmen. An official-to-player ratio weaker than in any other sport.

Even before Video Assistant Referee was used at the 2018 World Cup, the actions on the field were covered by more than 20 cameras. The World Cup game could be played in Berlin, Johannesburg or Rio, and viewers in New York, Beijing and Timbuktu would have a better angle and access to replays on controversial, game-changing incidents than the person in charge of making the crucial decisions -- the referee.

I was in the Berlin stadium at the 2006 World Cup when Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi.

The jumbo screens in the stadium provided replays of the game's two goals, near-misses, and the penalty kicks that gave Italy the World Cup title. They did not show replays of controversial incidents, a common practice designed to prevent inciting the crowd or embarrassing the referee. In the press section, we got to see the head-butt replay.

The irony was that it would have been better if the jumbo screen did show what Zidane did. Because the fans in the stadium didn't understand the red card, and were ignorant of the game's most dramatic turn. The fans jeered Italy as it lifted the trophy because they didn't realize how legitimate Zidane's ejection was.

I do believe that video review was used in the Zidane-Materazzi but was not admitted, because first we were told that linesman Dario Garcia spotted it, and then that it was the fourth official, who wasn't far from a monitor.

FIFA had a strict rule about not using video evidence at that time.

Regardless, it would be ridiculous that what the press and millions saw at home on replay would be prohibited information for the referee. Such as when earlier in the 2006 World Cup, Luis Figo got away with a heat-butt on Dutchman Mark van Bommel and Peter Crouch with yanking down Brent Sancho by his hair.

It's even more farcical in this day and age if a referee was denied the ability to get video info while officiating a game that would decide the world champion. Imagine what it would be like to referee the World Cup final knowing that the 75,000 people in the stadium are watching replays on their smart phones that you're not allowed to see?

Someone could hang out at the beach 3,000 miles away from a World Cup game, watching the game on an iPhone, and have had a better view of a controversial incident than the referee.

The concerns about VAR are real. You don't want a lot of delays, a slippery slope to reviewing everything, deflating the thrills of a goal celebrations, or using VAR to make the lowing-scoring sport of soccer even more defender-friendly.

But FIFA pulled off VAR at the 2018 World Cup without that happening. There may have been some flaws, like not calling the PK for Serbia against the Swiss. But the delays were negligible. And spending two minutes to award a legitimate penalty kick is a worthwhile trade-off.

That was the exception, the time it took final ref Nestor Pitana to award the France penalty kick -- because VAR rarely interrupted significantly in Russia.  In 64 games, 455 incidents were checked, but fewer than 20 times were game interruptions (averaging 80 seconds) required.

Indeed, VAR's influence exceeded what you noticed when there was a stoppage for replay.

VAR creates a deterrence factor, it enables referees to communicate with assistants who see replays, and the refs know they have a backup.

A backup for calls such as penalty kicks, which refs are hard-wired to resist because soccer is such a low-scoring sport. They don't want to be blamed for deciding a result, and thus err on the side of defenders. Knowing that VAR could make a correction if it really wasn't a foul, 2018 World Cup referees called more than twice as many penalty kicks (29) than in 2014 (13).

Also notable, there were no ejections at the 2018 World Cup for serious foul play or violent conduct, after the last previous five World Cup averaged 9.6. With players knowing all their actions were available on replay, VAR made the soccer cleaner, and safer.

The deterrence factor is obvious. Before VAR, it was easier to cheat in World Cup soccer than shop-lift at a grocery store with CCTV.

8 comments about "Why World Cup VAR was sorely needed and how it succeeded".
  1. Kent James, July 19, 2018 at 12:48 a.m.

    Well said, Mike. I think VAR also helped reduce the shenanigans that go on in the box on corner/free kicks (though it still need some work) and can also (eventually) be used to reduce diving/embellishment.  You've highlighted the concerns (delays, too many reviews), but so far, so good.  Now if we can only get the referees to enforce the yellow card for delaying the restart...

  2. beautiful game replied, July 19, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.

    The shananigans in the box are not thanks to was going on in plain sight for years and the referees were instructed to ignore them; like other selective rule enforcement of LOTG. VAR has its uses, but at WC 2018 it was brought in too early without gettng the kinks worked out. FIFA has shown that it is derelict in enforcing current LOTG. Time for FIFA to change LOTG which it either doesn't enforce or uses selective enforcement. 

  3. Michael Saunders, July 19, 2018 at 8:39 a.m.

    Good analysis Mike and one that should be required reading in order to stop the naysayers to a technology that makes sense and the good of the game.  

    I fully recognize that that one of the concerns with its use is that it may become intrusive and delay games.   Yet I have to believe that on controversial calls, it actually reduces the time spent to sort things out.  Noting that, I would extend its use for plays outside the penalty area to circa 25 yards from the goal.  Rationale is that players will seek direct kicks via diving as that will not be reviewed under the current guidelines.  And as the WC demonstrated, DFKs are huge opportunities.  Griezmann sold the call in the final that led to France’s first goal.  

    Also would think that in the event the ref in the review with  the VAR staff, consider that the a play was a “dive” or “embellishment” than a mandatory yellow card should be issued.

  4. Ginger Peeler, July 19, 2018 at 11:14 a.m.

    Beautiful, keep in mind that those fouls “in plain sight” in the box are views provided by overhead cameras, for the most part. Most of each game is televised from overhead views. However, the referee is down on the field with 22 bodies moving around. The ref will not, CANNOT, see all of the pushing, pulling and tugging because the bodies of all those players in the box block his view. And he lacks X-ray vision. The VAR assistants, with multiple views available to them, may see a likely foul and bring it to the ref’s attention. It is still up to the referee to decide if he wishes to view the play and, upon doing so, Determine if any action is needed. Admittedly, a couple of the early game refs chose NOT to even view play that was flagged by VAR. As the Cup progressed, we either got better refs, or the refs became more comfortable using the VAR backup as a tool...or maybe a combination of both. I would like to see MLS adopt the VAR format used in the 2018 Games. The European model seemed, to me, to be more inclusive than that used by MLS. 

  5. beautiful game replied, July 19, 2018 at 12:33 p.m.

    I beg to differ Ginger. The mayhem in the box is clearly viisible to the official. FIFA has condoned it for years like it condones flopping, off the ball fouls, etc. It's been derelict in its selective enforcement of LOTG.

  6. Kent James replied, July 19, 2018 at 5:02 p.m.

    Ginger, you're right about the progress during the WC.  While referees certainly could have called stuff in the box for years, one of the problems was if they called it, half the time people couldn't see what was called (since there was so much going on in a small area), so people would think refs were making it up (or calling it randomly).  Now it's documented.  Additionally, prior to VAR players could often get away with stuff because the ref could not see everything (it was physically impossible).  With VAR, the players now know someone is going to see it (and perhaps even call it!).  It ain't perfect, but it's a great improvement.

  7. beautiful game replied, July 19, 2018 at 9:23 p.m.

    Refs follow the FIFA drumbeat. It's not a matter of better or worse refs. It matters that LOTG are applied consistently without regard to "selective" rule violations. Otherwise, get rid of the rules that are not enforced. FIFA has lost its standard of judgment and KISS; keep the game simple stupid. It has become a greed corrupted organization just like the IOC. 

  8. T. Michael Flinn, July 20, 2018 at 6:27 a.m.

    Lost me when he said it was a eulogy to Tiki Taka. 

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