Understanding VAR: The Controversial New Standard for Officiating in Football

By | February 12, 2018

In a meeting on March 5th, 2016, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved the use of video referees referees (VAR) for a two-year trial period beginning June 1st, 2016. Since then, several of the world’s top leagues have adopted the system, including the Serie A in Italy, the MLS in America, and the Bundesliga in Germany. Given the plethora of mixed reactions to VAR by players, managers, and coaches since its implementation, whether or not it becomes a permanent fixture of professional football remains unpredictable. However, it is difficult to imagine a future where technology does not play a larger role in refereeing decisions, seeing referees make major decisions that significantly influence the outcome of matches and even leagues on a weekly basis.

VAR officials watch a match from the video operation room

VAR officials watch a match from the video operation room

How does VAR work?

VAR involves three officials who review decisions in a video operation room, which houses a series of monitors showing different camera angles of the match. The officials include the video assistant referee, his assistant, and a replay operator. They can review four different types of calls: goals, penalties, red cards, and mistaken identities in awarding a yellow or red card. The decision to review a call can be made by the referee on the field, who requests a review from the VAR judges, or the VAR judges themselves, who can recommend a review. If the VAR judges decide that the official has made what is called a “clear error” in his/her officiating decision, then they can notify said official, who can choose to overturn the call, review the incident on a touchline monitor, or stick with his/her original decision.

What is the purpose of VAR?

As IFAB explains, the objective of VAR is “not to achieve 100% accuracy for all decisions” but rather prevent clear mistakes in largely influential decisions, such as penalties and red cards.

Where is VAR currently used?

Most notably, VAR has been used in the Serie A, Bundesliga, MLS, Primera Liga, K League, A-League, Confederations Cup, Carabao Cup, and FA Cup. As for the English Premier League, VAR will not be adopted until the 2018-19 season at the earliest, when the two-year trial period is over. Reluctant to adopt VAR since its introduction, the EPL have found further justification in their hesitancy to adopt the system following a series of controversial incidents in the FA Cup, most notably, the referee’s decision to not use VAR when Chelsea winger Willian was fouled in the box and booked for diving in a third-round match against Norwich City on January 17.

How has VAR been received?

As with any major technological change, the introduction of VAR has been met with both praise and criticism from influential figures of the game. After the previously mentioned FA Cup tie, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte stated, “I think that we need to improve if we want to use this new system.” Players have been especially critical of the system, most notably renowned Juventus keeper Gianluigi Buffon, who has described VAR as “making the game ugly” and “like we’re playing water polo”. Similarly, Sami Khedira addressed VAR’s impact on the emotional aspect of football, “At the moment it’s a disaster. It’s all a big jumble. The players do not know any more whether or not to celebrate after a goal. A lot of emotion and passion has been lost.” On the other hand, FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino believes that the system has been fairly successful during the trial period, especially in helping to make major decisions in the group stage of the Confederations Cup. The most common criticism of VAR is the amount of time it takes for the referee to make a decision, ruining the momentum of the game.

Will VAR be used at the World Cup in Russia?

Most likely. While a final decision is pending, IFAB has recommended that VAR be approved for the 2018 World Cup after reporting a decision accuracy of 98.9% in 800 matches from 20 competitions.

So what?

A long-cherished aspect of football has always been its sense of unfairness, which is a part of what makes it such an unpredictable sport. Even if VAR is perfected, there remains the question of whether or not it makes sense for all refereeing decisions in football to be correct. Given that it is not only the world’s most beloved football tournament but also a clash of nations and ideologies, the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be a major test for VAR as a game-changing technology.

Works Cited
Burnton, Simon. “Video Assistant Referees: Everything You Need to Know.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/nov/10/video-assistant-referees-everything-you-need-to-know.
FIFA.com. “First Participants of Video Assistant Referee Experiments Announced.” FIFA.com, 2 June 2016, www.fifa.com/about-fifa/news/y=2016/m=6/news=first-participants-of-video-assistant-referee-experiments-announced-2799518.html.
FIFA.com. “IFAB Agrees to Introduce Experiments with Video Assistant Referees.” FIFA.com, 5 Mar. 2016, www.fifa.com/about-fifa/news/y=2016/m=3/news=ifab-agrees-to-introduce-experiments-with-video-assistant-referees-2768643.html.
Kelly, Ryan. “VAR in the Premier League: When Is It Coming, How It Works & Controversy.” Goal.com, 2 Aug. 2018, www.goal.com/en/news/var-in-the-premier-league-when-is-it-coming-how-it-works/1ujo235owuj3q1wsx6vysf7uzu.
MacInnes, Paul. “VAR Edges Closer to Confirmation for 2018 World Cup.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jan/22/var-2018-world-cup.
Platt, Oli. “What Is VAR? The Video Assistant Referee System’s World Cup & Premier League Future.” Goal.com, 18 Jan. 2018, www.goal.com/en-us/news/what-is-var-the-video-assistant-referee-systems-world-cup/19m696jq7onm618n3v9oqs02ab.
Wilson, Jeremy. “Senior Fifa Official Says VAR Will ‘Definitely’ Be Used at World Cup.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 22 Jan. 2018, www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2018/01/22/senior-fifa-official-says-var-will-definitely-used-world-cup/.

One thought on “Understanding VAR: The Controversial New Standard for Officiating in Football

  1. Michael Olson

    I’m on the VAR bandwagon. (At this point, it’s probably less of a bandwagon and more so just the accepted future of the game.) I think VAR is taking the right approach by only focusing on existing calls in the game. It isn’t trying to over police the game. It is trying to make the calls that do happen the right ones.

    Maybe this is just my opinion, but I feel like red cards and goals are two of the most pivotal things in soccer, they can completely change the outcome of a game. For that reason, I’d really hope that calls surrounding those two parts of the game are right every time. I’d gladly wait the extra half minute for VAR to confirm everything. It just makes sense.

    I still think VAR, and referee technology has a ways to go, particularly with offsides calls. It’s hard for humans to look at two places at once, but a bunch of cameras and computers can do that easily. So there’s still room for improvement.


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