Commentary

VAR: The World Cup, and beyond

FIFA president Gianni Infantino in a recent conference admitted that he had doubts about the VAR system before the World Cup in Russia. After the great success of the VAR implementation in the World Cup, more countries are utilizing the VAR systems in their leagues. Leagues in 13 countries are using the VAR system: nine in UEFA, two in Concacaf (USA and Canada) and two in AFC. Mexico and Israel are going through VAR education to implement in the near future.

Personally, I am following some of the games in MLS, Bundesliga and Super Lig, so my comments will be based on my subjective experience with the games since the World Cup. After the World Cup, FIFA has released some figures about the VAR implementation: According to the figures, in 64 games 455 incidents (7.1 per game) were checked, and 20 on the On the Field Review (OFR) were conducted (0.31 per game). We can take these as a yard stick for the leagues although there is a difference between a league and a tournament. Unfortunately, I do not have any figures for the 12 leagues mentioned above except for one. My friend Murat Ilgaz -- who is responsible for the VAR operations of the Turkish Super Lig -- gave me the figures from the first six weeks of operation. In the 54 games played there, were 19 OFRs carried out (0.35 per game) and of those 19 OFRs 12 of them caused a decision change. The number of OFRs per game is very similar to the figures from the World Cup. I am sure these figures are similar in most of the leagues. 

Since the performance of the VAR system was so good at the World Cup, it set a very high precedence. The league games I watched were a notch below the World Cup standard. Even though the OFR per game values might be similar between the leagues and the World Cup, there were two other factors helping the World Cup’s VAR performance. One of them is the number of cameras during the games. In the World Cup, 30+ cameras were used whereas the Bundesliga uses 20+ cameras and Turkish Super Lig 10+ cameras. The number of cameras and their positioning at the stadium make a lot qualitative difference for the VAR system. More cameras and correctly positioned cameras make the VAR’s decision and life easier. Also during the World Cup, the best FIFA referees from around the world were used as VAR officials. There was not too much of a difference in experience and quality levels between the referee crew and the VAR crew. Unfortunately, in the league games where there are several games in one day and you might not have the same sort of parity between the refereeing and VAR crews.  

The FIFA officials themselves admit that the first couple of months of the VAR application in the leagues will be hectic and problematic. I can see the difference between the VAR applications of last year’s Bundesliga and this year’s. The Turkish Super Lig is experiencing similar problems like the Bundesliga and MLS had in their first year.

The reason why the VAR system was initiated was to eradicate or “minimize clear errors in match-changing situations” using replay technology. The system was developed for “minimal interference and maximal benefit”.

Both the World Cup and the Leagues application of the VAR system showed some irrevocable benefits to the game:

  1. As long as correct number of cameras are placed in the correct positions it will be impossible for the refereeing crew to make objective match changing errors like:
    1. Goal or no goal decisions when the ball has crossed over the goal line even though GLT is not used;
    2. The ball being on the field of play or not in the build-up of a goal scored;
    3. The decision for a free-kick or a penalty-kick when the foul is committed very close to the penalty area line;
    4. Goals scored from an offside position -- except subjective decisions of interfering with an opponent -- or goals disallowed because of a wrong offside decision;
    5. Showing a card to the wrong player
  2. Since the system acts like a “big brother,” there will be less or no off-the-ball violent conduct incidents like striking, kicking or elbowing an opponent off the ball as well as gross infractions like spitting at another person. You could see the results of this in the World Cup; there were only two direct red cards, both due to denying a goal-scoring opportunity. VAR system acts as a deterrent for such actions. It will also help to identify the culprits of violent conduct during a brawl, since the referees on the field might have hard time identifying the offenders.
  3. It will definitely decrease dissent but will not eradicate it.

On the other hand, decisions involving subjective decisions like deciding whether a challenge is worth a red card -- serious foul play -- or not. As well as most of the decisions regarding a penalty kick are very subjective. For such decisions, the VAR protocol allows the VAR officials to recommend an OFR. According to the VAR protocol:

  • “The referee’s decision can only be changed if the video review shows a clear error i.e. not "was the decision correct?’ but “Was the decision clearly wrong?” The same protocol refers to it as “an obvious and clear error” or a “serious missed incident."
  • “OFRs will be mainly for ‘subjective’ decisions or to assist match control or to ‘sell’ a decision. “ I personally find the last two to be a two edged sword.

I personally believe that even today's average of one OFR per three games is too high. Im order for the VAR to intervene, it has to be a “an obvious and clear error.” I would say that “an obvious and clear error” is a decision on which at least 90 percent of the experts will agree that it is wrong. For example, the penalty-kick decision given during final of the 2018 World Cup was initiated by the VAR and upheld by the referee. Many experts thought that the contact between the hand and the ball was not deliberate but still the VAR asked for an OFR. One can find many examples of the same nature. So let us look closely why this is happening:

  1. Majority of the subjective decisions leading to an OFR are defined in Law 12. Law 12 defines 12 offenses that will lead to a free-kick or penalty-kick. Except for “deliberate handling” none of them are defined precisely or in detail in Law 12. IFAB has been working for three years to come with a new definition of handling as an offense since handling is the most controversial and argued call of them all. A red card for “excessive use of force” has the same destiny; what is excessive force is not defined extensively in Law 12 except for defining serious foul play. Even then subjective phrases like “endangering the safety of an opponent “or “attempts to use brutality” are used. You learn how to interpret these at the higher level of the game through experience, practice and instruction through clips. As result, what one calls a penalty-kick the other does not; where one shows a red card for a foul another will show a yellow card. As I defined earlier, “an obvious and clear” is a decision on which at least 90 percent of the experts will agree on. And such obvious and clear errors resulting in a game changing situation is very rare, rarer than once every three games.
  2. On the other hand, there were a few obvious and clear errors in the World Cup that did not trigger an OFR. For example, the wrestling down of the Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic inside the Swiss penalty area was such an obvious and clear decision. Felix Brych paid for his mistake dearly by being sent home. One can ask why the VAR officials would not notify the referee for an OFR for such an obvious and clear error. One can find one of the reasons in Sandro Ricci’s recent interview. He was the VAR official during the Tunisia and England game. He confesses that “he should have alerted the ref to the holding going on at England corners. But he found himself looking for ways to defend the referee, bending over backwards not to over-rule or add to the decisions being taken on the field.” Comradeship between match officials is a known and humanly fact. On the other hand, how can one explain why the VAR during the final alerted the Argentine referee Nestor Pitana for an OFR for a “missed penalty-kick” when for many it was not an obvious and clear error. I would think that the VAR did not want to be blamed for missing a penalty kick and put the ball in Pitana’s court. Pitana after the OFR changed his decision and called a penalty-kick. Wrong decision? No; Correct decision? No. Definitely the original decision of a no call for a penalty kick was not an obvious and clear error.

To summarize, all three VARs mentioned above are humans. Subjective decisions are based on the interpretation of a human being under stress. Although the VAR system will minimize game-changing errors it will not completely remove them from out beautiful game since the subjective decisions are made by humans.

I would like to make three suggestions for the betterment of the VAR system:

  1. Second yellow cards should be included in the domain of the VAR protocol. Although one can argue that the first and hence all yellow cards should be checked, one should not forget that the second yellow card causes a game-changing situation, namely a send-off.
  2. In some very rare cases, a game might have to be replayed if the referee made a misapplication of the Laws of the Game and that decision changed the outcome of the match. In such cases -– regardless whether the outcome might be changed -- the VAR should notify the referee about the misapplication of the LOTG before the game starts.
  3. Since both silent checks and OFRs take considerable time from the game and since we are already using technology, we should utilize time keepers - with 30 minute halves – in games where the VAR system is being used.

We are at the crawling stages of the VAR system; I believe -- unlike my previous skeptical thoughts -- if the necessary support is given by the associations/leagues to the VAR system, it is here to stay.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.

3 comments about "VAR: The World Cup, and beyond".
  1. Tony Biscaia, September 28, 2018 at 6:20 a.m.

    I would like to point out that any commentary on VAR is itself subject to inspection.  In the overall, I think it's a great idea but flawed in its bias.  Being there and close up personal observation has no equal.

  2. Zafiris Petropoulos, September 30, 2018 at 2:03 p.m.

    So,it's a very useful article but could you name the whole leagues, use until now the VAR?

    Thanks,in advance

  3. R2 Dad, October 1, 2018 at 1:49 p.m.

    I do not believe "obvious and clear error" is the correct requirement for enabling OFR, since as you mentioned it still was not able to catch the no-PK call without bending the rules. Perhaps "clear error or unsee violation"?
    What I don't like with VAR was shown in a recent MLS match (SJ Earthquakes?) where a goal was dissallowed due to a previous unsighted violation at the other end of the pitch. That's just bad officiating.

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