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Assessing the V A Aaaarrgghh!

By Paul Ackerman

Sporting Chance Magazine VAR

Every four years it seems that the whole world comes together for a football tournament and spends each morning for a glorious month wrestling with the issues from the match of day.

The teams and the tactics. The swerving balls and the extravagant falls. Which new players will emerge, which ones will fade and in which round will England get knocked out on penalties?

Yes, it’s World Cup time again and during Russia 2018, FIFA has blessed us with a new topic to pour over. The Video Assistant Referee.

Great time for a spot of tellie

There is much that has been noteworthy over the first ten days of this footballing marathon.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s early ascendancy over Lionel Messi in their bid for GOAT status (yes, that’s “Greatest Of All Time” but don’t let Pele or Maradona know). There has been upsets galore as the gap between football’s aristocracy and the rest of the world, continues to narrow.

Nothing however, has caused quite so much controversy as the VAR.

So what is VAR exactly? That’s a trickier question than perhaps it should be.

We all (fans, media and dare I suggest even the officials) seem to have been on a steep learning curve since the VAR arrived emphatically during the clash between France and Australia. (We’ll get to that but let’s deal with our initial question, first.)

It would seem reasonable to go to the source in search of a clear explanation of the rules.

A visit to the VAR page on FIFA’s official World Cup site however, seems more intent on promotion than explanation and quotes abound from prominent former players extolling VAR’s virtues and assurances about the credentials of the officials involved.

It may interest you to learn that the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has, in turn, three Assistant Video Assistant Referees (AVARs) although if you want to know what assistance is provided to the Assistant Video Assistant Referees, I’m unable to assist you with that I’m afraid.

Perseverance should meet with reward and so we must push on, past the list of World Cup match officials and beyond a map purporting to show the links between the centralised Video Operation Room (VOR) in Moscow and the surrounding match locations but which looks suspiciously more like a misplaced military plan for Russian expansion into Western Europe.

Down, down we scroll towards the earth’s core until reaching, “The Decision Process” and “VAR Explained”.

The first point to understand about the process is that it does not extend to all areas of the game. This is quite reasonable as a football match has endless potential for stoppages and a review of each infringement could double a match’s duration.

To prevent unnecessarily litigious delays, FIFA has stated four “game changing situations” in which the VAR can become involved:

1. Goals and offences leading up to a goal.
2. Penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty.
3. Direct red card incidents only.
4. Mistaken identity.

In each of the above scenarios the VAR is there solely to assist the on field referee. The VAR team has no decision-making authority itself but rather it “checks for clear and obvious errors related to these four match-changing situations” and then communicates those clear and obvious mistakes or serious missed incidents to the on field referee.

It is probably timely at this stage to offer a personal view about the VAR system.

The aim to reduce or eliminate human error from the officiating of any sport is an admirable one. The problem arises in the implementation.

The potential for an error in decision-making implies the existence of a definitively correct answer.

Turns out it wasn't out after all

The Decision Review System (DRS) in cricket makes for an interesting comparison with the VAR.

When it comes to dismissals, cricket is a fundamentally geometric sport. It is about crease lines crossed, stumps half hit or missed. Despite it’s rooting in trigonometric proofs and its ability to produce conclusive outcomes according to its rules, DRS has generated no shortage of debate during its lifetime.

Similarly, football contains some decisions that can be clearly determined and to this extend the introduction of the VAR is a positive move.

Did it cross the line or not?

The use of goal line technology to establish whether or not a ball has fully crossed the line is undoubtedly a step forward.

Nostalgists may lament that the game will never again produce a ‘Geoff Hurst moment’ to be debated through the ages.

More than fifty years on from the 1966 World Cup Final between England and Germany, I can do a Google search on “Did Geoff Hurst’s goal go in?” and it still returns approximately 274,000 results!

Nevertheless accuracy of outcome should be sought wherever possible.

The offside rule is another on which technology can and therefore should adjudicate precisely. So too with cases of mistaken identity which, whilst rare, do occur as we have already seen in the bemused face of Edison Flores who received a booking (subsequently overturned) for a foul committed by his team-mate Pedro Aquino in Peru’s match against France.

Football however, also involves assessments that can be subjective and it is here that the use of the VAR becomes contentious. The rules limit VAR to dealing with “clear and obvious errors” but where to draw the line on that?

Even the wording of the “game changing situations” covered by the VAR invites ambiguity. Consider “offences leading up to a goal” in the context of Columbia’s equaliser in their Group H match against Japan.

The goal came from a cunning free kick driven low and underneath a leaping Japanese “wall” just beyond a surprised and scrambling keeper.

The foul that produced that free kick however, whilst perhaps “cunning” in its own way was anything but valid as the Columbian forward Falcao, running towards an aerial ball, first backed into his Japanese opponent and then flung himself to the ground in what proved to be a successful attempt to draw the foul.

If there was an infringement it should have been awarded in favour of Japan but this was an “offence” committed well outside the penalty area and therefore was not subject to the VAR. Had it been reviewed the decision would undoubtedly have been overturned but the referee’s initial judgement stood and a goal was scored directly from the resultant free kick.

Was this an “offence leading up to a goal”? Viewed retrospectively it was. Once the goal had been scored should the referee have been able to refer back to the preceding incident and apply a review at that stage? That’s not possible under the current rules and it would be hard to justify a system that allowed the game to be rewound to some predetermined point. Nevertheless the incident highlights that even with the introduction of technology matches will continue to be materially impacted by human error.

Of course the greater cause for concern is the continued scope for mistakes even when the VAR is in play. Enough attention, certainly in Australia, has already been devoted to the penalty conceded by the Socceroos that resulted in France’s opening goal in their Group C match.

While its importance to the result of the fixture was perhaps overblown, it does serve however, to illustrate the frailties of the VAR or any technology in matters of subjective decision-making.

A constant challenge with any referral system is striking the right balance between minimising disruption to game time whilst allowing for the deliberation needed to make the right call.

The VAR team has access to thirty-three broadcast cameras. After seeking out as many views as I can find I have seen only one angle that clearly shows Australian defender Josh Risdon’s foot touching the ball (albeit slightly) before coming in to contact with French forward Antoine Griezmann. Was this particular angle viewed by the VAR in coming to their recommendation that the on field referee should take a closer look?

Certainly it seems unlikely that the referee, in his brief referral to the pitch side video, saw this particular view before deciding to reverse his original decision and award France a penalty.

Even allowing for a situation where all available information had been analysed there still remains scope to question what the correct decision should have been. Did Risdon manage to deflect the ball sufficiently to remove control of it from Griezmann before contact was made with that player? The question of a whether a foul has been committed hinges on that point.

The fact that days on from the game, with time for calm and considered analysis of all the footage, there is still a lack of consensus about the outcome is proof enough of the subjectivity involved.

If technology cannot be conclusive then should it be allowed to interfere with the original, real-time decision of the individual who remains the final arbiter of the truth out on the pitch? “Clear and obvious error,” eh? I think not.

Examples of dubious VAR reviews are not isolated to the France versus Australia game. Indeed Australia was probably the beneficiary in their very next match against Denmark.

In this game the referee reversed his original decision and awarded Australia a penalty for a handball which seemed harsh at best. Even with clear vision of this particular offence there has been considerable questioning of the referee’s judgement that Yussuf Poulsen’s handling of the ball was deliberate rather than an inability to remove his arm in the split second that it took the ball to travel from Matt Leckie’s head.

This particular incident raises another concern with the current VAR system. In matters of open play where the referee initially decides that no offence has occurred then the game, quite naturally, continues.

On this occasion, by the time the VAR had communicated with the on field referee that he might want to take another look at the incident, the ball had reached the other end of the pitch. We have seen several other passages of play that have had to be stopped before a review of an earlier incident could occur.

In Peru’s clash with Denmark the referee initially waved play on when Peru’s Christian Cueva was brought down in the Danish area. Play continued for a full twenty-four seconds before the referee finally signalled a halt. During this time a number of the players were clearly distracted and waiting to see what might follow.

It is only a matter of time before we have a situation where a counter attack is launched and a goal scored in the time taken to decide on a review.

What then? Imagine the uproar.

A goal has been scored but the referee halts play and now decides to award a penalty to the other side for the earlier infringement. At least that can be justified. If a foul has been committed then play comes to a halt at that moment and so anything that follows cannot be deemed to have legitimately occurred within game time.

Now consider this. The same situation occurs but this time the referee decides that his original judgement was correct. There was no foul. Play should have and did continue up until the moment that the other team scored. Let’s say that other team was the home side. Playing in front of 50,000 partisan fans. Does there exist anywhere a referee brave enough to dismiss the review, hold to his original decision and then rub out the subsequent goal?

Or does that goal actually stand?
:Raises clenched fist to the football gods:

What other implications are there for the introduction of VAR? Well an increase in the number of penalties certainly.

Already we’ve seen fourteen penalties (and counting) prior to the conclusion of the second round of group matches in Russia. Only ten penalties were awarded in the whole of the three rounds of the group stage at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This is to be expected.

Get used to seeing this a lot more often

Added to the penalties that referees will continue to award, we have those arising from the VAR’s considered view.

A trend already apparent is that once the VAR advises the referee to review an incident where no foul has been given you can take it to the bank that the outcome will be a reversal of that decision and the awarding of a penalty.

Australia versus France, Peru versus Denmark, Sweden versus South Korea, Russia versus Egypt, Australia versus Denmark and Nigeria versus Iceland are all examples of games where penalties were awarded after the referee had initially waved play on.

One case where the reverse situation applied may signal an unexpected benefit of the introduction of VAR.

In Brazil’s match against Costa Rica the referee awarded Brazil a penalty when their star player Neymar appeared to be bundled to the ground. That decision however, was overturned, due in no small part (one suspects) to the extravagant manner in which Neymar collapsed as if felled by a heavyweight punch.

It may take a while for the fact to penetrate the minds of some players but their reactions can now be scrutinised. The ugly theatrics, so out of place in the beautiful game, now need to convince not just the on field referee but also the VAR. If all players eventually treat their game as football rather than the ten metre platform event then that will absolve the VAR from many of its failings.

Where does this leave us? For those that bemoan the intrusion of technology in sport I have no good news I’m afraid.

Technology, once introduced to a sport may be refined but it will not be removed. That ship has sailed. It could certainly be argued that technology in football is still too much in its infancy to have been included for a tournament of such global significance but that ship disappeared over the horizon before the first ball was kicked.

Technology in sport is valid where it can precisely adjudicate on matters of a certain outcome.

Can you tell me if the ball crossed the line? Yes. Then please do so.
Can you tell me if the player was offside? Yes. Then please do so.
Can you really judge in a matter of seconds if a referee’s call of a foul was correct or not and then decide if the error was “obvious” or fell within some unspecified boundary of acceptable error? Hmmmm… I’m not so sure that you can.

On that one I’m willing to wear the human error that we’ve endured, enjoyed and debated for over a century.

At least until the next time my team gets done by the ref!


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