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How the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has made its presence felt

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) made its debut for the first time on the international stage in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Last updated: 27.06.2018
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) made its debut for the first time on the international stage in the 2018 FIFA World Cup | Sports Social Blog

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The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) made its debut for the first time on the international stage in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and it’s fair to say football tech’s latest brainchild after the goal-line technology has definitely helped the referees come up with better decisions.

Similar to a hybrid between the Third Umpire and the Decision Review System (DRS) concepts used in cricket, the VAR is the on-field referee’s reference point in case of penalty decisions, offside calls in the build-up to a goal and so on. But unlike the DRS, where the captains of the two sides involved in the match get to ask for a review, in the VAR, it is the referee who decides when to resort to his officials in front of a dozen computer screens, displaying the game from various angles, analyzing the referred decision. The VAR comes into play only when the on-field officials make a “clean and obvious error” in one of 4 key areas: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identities. Extremely smart, but many feel it may not be as efficient.

The criticism the VAR has gone through is three-fold. One, quite often, fans don’t know which decision is being reviewed, especially in smaller stadiums which are not in possession of a big screen. Though FIFA has tried to bring in corrections, nothing has come up yet. Two, a lot of the fouls inside the 30-yard box, resulting in penalties, are still influenced by human interpretation. Once the referee spots the tugs, pulls and pushes, he is bound to make a decision on-field, which means there has to be conclusive evidence to overturn his initial decision, which is another feature that technology cannot exactly correct. Three, quite often, the referee is pressured into using the VAR by players who are disgruntled by his decision, especially in the case of penalties. For instance, in the Argentina-Nigeria clash, Javier Mascherano had clearly committed a foul in the box, for which the referee originally pointed to the penalty spot, but under pressure from the Argentine players, chose to refer the matter to his assistants in the VAR room. Though the original call stayed, it just shows that referees’ fear of making wrong calls defines at least a portion of the decision made on the spot.

The 2018 World Cup has seen as many as 20 penalties given by the referees over the course of the Group Stage. This count is two more than the 18 penalties registered in the 2002 edition, over the course of the entire World Cup! Clearly, the VAR has been a vital reason behind this and has been of massive help, but came under the scanner during the final and crunch games of Groups B and D. The Iran-Portugal fixture saw a potential sending-off for Cristiano Ronaldo replaced by a yellow card as well as a stoppage-time penalty for Iran which they converted, denying a top-spot finish for Portugal. Both decisions were made after consultation with the VAR. The Spain-Morocco fixture saw a 90th minute Spain leveler chalked off for offside before the goal was given after a three-minute long consultation with the VAR, assuring Spain a top-spot finish. In Group D, the Argentina-Nigeria game saw no penalty given for Marcos Rojo’s handball in the penalty box after resorting to the VAR. The referee claimed it was an ‘unintentional handball’, which seemed fair, but it was an extremely similar one to what happened in the Iran-Portugal game for which a penalty was given. In the Croatia-Argentina game, Ante Rebic should have been sent off for a studs-up challenge on the Albiceleste’s Eduardo Salvio, but somehow stayed on the pitch with just a yellow card to his name. Similarly, Nigeria’s Balogun could well have been sent off for hacking Argentina’s Angel di Maria down on the counter in the final Group D game, but somehow escaped with just a yellow. Group E also saw a bit of the action in the Brazil-Costa Rica game when Neymar seemed to have won a penalty for the former, but the referee canceled it out after consultation with the VAR, signaling that the Brazilian ‘went down too easily’.

On the whole, the VAR has come under a lot of criticism and it is fair to say that it has had a mixed run in this World Cup so far. Though it has done a fairly decent job when it comes to goals, the red-card and penalty decisions have been highly debatable, while the mistaken identity factor has come up just once so far. Pundits all over have absolutely bashed it, with Alan Shearer calling it “complete and utter bullocks” and James Milner referred to it as an “absolute shambles”. It would be unfair to say the VAR has been completely inefficient, but it has certainly struggled to live up to its billing as an advancement for the beautiful game and has rather become the indecisive referee’s inference point.

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