During my attendance at the 2017 Supporter Summit, I got the chance to listen to Neale Barry, current FA Head of Senior Referee Development, explain how the new Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) will work. Now, for anyone who has been watching this year’s Confederations Cup will be aware that VAR is by no means perfect. When the VAR 2-year experiment was announced in 2016, I was sceptical about how effective it would be.
The FA will introduce VAR from the 3rd round of this year’s FA Cup and the Premier League will look to introduce VAR in the 2018/19 season. So, what does this mean for the everyday fan? How will football matches be affected by this innovative technology? It is important to understand that VAR will not stop every wrong decision during a match. The International Football Association Board's (IFAB) philosophy for VAR is “minimum interference, maximum benefit”. The VAR system “is not designed for there to be 15-20 decisions per match,” states David Elleray, IFAB’s Technical Director.
Despite the VAR experiment still being in progress, there are many high profile critics, including Alan Shearer. From what I have seen, the “bad decisions” that have been made under the use of VARs, have not been the fault of the technology itself but in the quality of the referee’s decision making. By writing this, I would hope to dispel some myths and misinformation around the impact of VAR by explaining how the system should work.
How VARs will work
VARs will provide assistance for match changing decisions, where a clear error has been by the referee. Decisions that are reviewable by either the referee or the VAR are:
- Penalty/No penalty
- Straight red cards
- Mistaken identity
Interventions can be made by either the VAR or the referee. Also, there are currently no set rules on how far back a decision can be reviewed. When a review is taking place, there is no time pressure on making a decision, as accuracy in decisions is considered paramount. Interestingly, when Premier League captains were asked, they considered the speed at which the decision was made to be most important. This seems counter intuitive to the whole point of VARs, to be perfectly honest. There is no intention on slowing the game down by reviewing decisions, with IFAB expecting decisions to be reviewed with 30-45 seconds on average. Don't forget that matches aren't immediately restarted the moment events like a goal happen.
VARs are in a room at the stadium or a central location, with an assistant VAR and a relay operator. They have independent access to, and replay control of all broadcast footage. The VAR will constantly monitor play and inform the referee, via headset, of any potential clear error. If the ball is in play when the VAR makes an intervention, the referee will stop play when the ball is in a ‘neutral zone’. What this ‘neutral zone’ constitutes is yet to be confirmed, but I would imagine it would most likely be the middle third of the pitch. All decisions made with a VAR must be reviewed before play restarts, and the final decision will be made by the referee.
When a VAR intervenes, the referee has one of two choices to make:
- Accept the information/decision of the VAR
- Review footage for themselves to decide
When the referee is reviewing the footage, they should, as far as possible, remain ‘visible’ during the review process to maintain the transparency of the process.
How it might be financed
The extent to which this will spread through football will depend on club finances. The technology will require round the pitch cameras, with Neale Barry suggesting a minimum of six. Setting this up might be considered too expensive for some Football League clubs. For me, this is something that should at least be partially funded by the footballing authorities, especially if it is part of the experiment.
In my opinion, VAR as a solution to some of the games ills has some way to go. However, I am quite positive that it is a step in the right direction. We’ve all been to games that have seen our team lose due to a decision that was grossly incorrect. If VARs can correct these mistakes, then I am all for them being introduced to the international game. My only stipulation would be that FIFA and IFAB must invest heavily, in both time and money, to ensure that all officials have the adequate training to fulfil the role to the highest standards.
IFAB do not intend for VAR to be a replacement for the referee on the pitch. This solution must act as a single protocol for everyone to avoid situations where different governing bodies can decide to add their own rules or ignore other parts of the rule book. VAR can also be seen as an important weapon against match manipulation.
All the problems we have seen so far have come down to the human capacity to make mistakes, referees making incorrect interpretations of situations. To bring this full circle, VAR is not a perfect solution but it has the potential to be a significant improvement on how football matches are officiated. So, when pundits behave in such a defeatist manner before the solution is even properly implemented, it makes you wonder how other technologies will fare in the future. At least FIFA and IFAB are attempting to improve the game, rather than just the size of their wallets. Well, there's a first for everything!