If anyone was seeking a grand endorsement of the video assistant referee system, the FA Cup fifth round replay between Tottenham Hotspur and Rochdale earlier this year did not provide it. There were 10 reviews in all that freezing night at Wembley, and not all the decisions eventually reached by referee Paul Tierney left everyone convinced. A seemingly good goal by Erik Lamela was chalked off while Son Heung-min’s penalty was overturned because he paused in his run-up. All the reviews took at least a minute – some much longer – as the players waited hopelessly in the cold.
“That has just overshadowed a good performance by us and a good performance by Rochdale,” Tottenham left-back Danny Rose said afterwards. “There is no word to describe it except frustrating, even though we won 6-1. It’s just complete nonsense if you ask me, waiting around and not knowing what is going on. It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous.”
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino also took a dim view of the proceedings. “We need to talk and to explain the system,” he said,” because today I think everybody was confused, and that is not going to help the football. We are trying to change the game that we love. And if we are going to use this system, we must all be clear on it and sure on what is going to happen.”
The VAR will become the latest technical innovation to be used at the FIFA World Cup, following the introduction of vanishing spray and goal-line technology at the 2014 edition. Vanishing spray, already in use in South America before it became the norm everywhere, was quickly accepted as a long-needed measure. It proved reasonably effective in preventing encroachment when free kicks were being taken, even if there were hilarious consequences occasionally (just look up ‘vanishing spray funny moments’ on YouTube).
Helping hand from technology
Goal-line technology was an unquestioned success, having been deployed at all 64 games in Brazil. It helped the referee award Bryan Ruiz’s goal for Costa Rica against Italy and also helped chalk off Ron Vlaar’s penalty for Holland in the semifinal shootout against Argentina. The calls for goal-line technology had grown too loud to ignore after Frank Lampard’s goal for England against Germany in the 2010 World Cup was incorrectly not awarded. “It is obvious that after the experiences so far at this World Cup, it would be nonsense not to reopen the file on goal-line technology,” Sepp Blatter, then FIFA president, said in the aftermath of that tournament, while apologizing to the Football Association of England. Only months before, then FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke had said the door was “closed” on goal-line and video technology, following a vote by the International FA Board, the body that decides the laws of the game. But the Lampard incident and a Carlos Tevez goal for Argentina against Mexico that was allowed to stand even when the striker was clearly offside appeared to have convinced Blatter.
The current FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, is a huge fan of technology. A decade ago, video replays at a World Cup would have been unthinkable, but Infantino is clearly different from his former boss Michel Platini, who was an avowed hater of technology in any form. Some may find the decision to bring VAR to Russia premature, for it is not without its flaws. Ever since trials began in 2016, the system has been used in various leagues around the world, including the A-League, the Major League Soccer, the Bundesliga and the Serie A. It was used in a FIFA tournament for the first time at last year’s Confederations Cup. All along, there has been much controversy and criticism. In the A-League Grand Final, a technical glitch meant the VAR did not function and an offside goal was allowed to stand. The game ended 1-0. In the Confederations Cup final, Chile’s Gonzalo Jara elbowed Germany’s Timo Werner in the face, but, after a three-minute review, received only a yellow card. In the Bundesliga, the Mainz and Freiburg players bizarrely had to be recalled from their dressing rooms at half-time after the former was awarded a penalty following VAR intervention.
The VAR gang
But FIFA is clear that the VAR will intervene only in four “game-changing” situations – goals and offences leading up to a goal, penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty, direct red card incidents and cases of mistaken identity. A panel of 13 FIFA referees has been formed for VAR duty. During each game, a four-member VAR team will sit in a central operations room in Moscow, with access to match footage from 33 broadcast cameras (including eight super-slow motion and four ultra-slow motion cameras). They will communicate with the on-field referee via radio.
The difference, though, is that goal-line technology produces objective results – with no scope for dispute – while the VAR will still involve subjective refereeing decisions. “Video refereeing will bring much more to the transparency of football,” Infantino said in March. “It isn’t going to be the solution to everything in football – what we want to do is avoid resounding mistakes by referees.”
In May, Johannes Holzmueller, the head of FIFA’s technology innovation department, echoed those sentiments. “The aim is not to achieve 100 per cent calls for all decisions,” he said, “but only to avoid scandal.” In Russia, it would be an irony if that effort only resulted in more scandal.
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