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:
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:
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:
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:
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.