VAR's foray into the World Cup

Video Assistant Referees, an extra set of eyes – 35 in case of this FIFA World Cup – a common feature across the Bundesliga and Serie A for some years, have made their World Cup debut in Russia.

VAR refereeing Project Leader Roberto Rosetti (L) demonstrates the functioning of a facility of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.   -  AP

Technology, which is an integral part of our everyday life, has made its way to the sporting arena as well. While the advancement of broadcast machinery has dramatically increased the off-ground viewership of games, the introduction of it to actually dictate the course of matches has elicited mixed response.

Video Assistant Referees (VAR), an extra set of eyes – 35 in case of this FIFA World Cup – for the on-field adjudicators, a common feature across the Bundesliga and Serie A for some years, have made their World Cup debut in Russia.

READ: VAR stirs World Cup drama and endless debate

All other major sports, for long, have turned to instant replays to help officials. The National Football League and the National Basketball League in the USA use the technology to review scoring and many other aspects of the game. Tennis, too, has seen its use while cricket was perhaps the first sport to embrace it with the advent of the Third Umpire – Sachin Tendulkar its first victim during the Kingsmead Test against South Africa – in 1992.

While cricket has an additional umpire sitting on the stands, the VAR team in Russia, for every game, has four officials operating from the central broadcasting station in Moscow. They have access to 33 broadcast cameras and two additional ones for off-sides and are instructed to give their verdicts on “clear and obvious” misjudgments and also review decisions on the referee’s prompting.

Roberto Rosetti, FIFA’s VAR Refereeing project leader, reiterates the referee’s omnipresent role in the entire process that is governed by the amended Rule 5 of the Laws of the Game (2018-2019). “The referee is at the centre of the decision-making process. The VAR doesn’t decide. It can only recommend an on-field review,” he said. “The referee has to take the final decision. This is the difference between interpretation, subjective decisions and factual decisions. The referee will be at the centre of all interpretations.”

ALSO READ: Ref bosses insists VAR will help and not hinder World Cup

This key decision to leave a human at the middle of the complex process perhaps has left it to scrutiny, with VAR decisions in Russia creating more confusions than answers. According to official figures, VAR has checked 335 incidents – including all the goals – during the group phase and there have been 17 reviews, with 14 changes to the original on-field ruling.

The numbers, however, don’t reveal the entire story. While VAR has helped sides like Spain, France with the correct interpretation, Serbia’s Aleksandar Metrovic (against Switzerland) can feel aggrieved for missing out on a penalty that prompted the team’s coach Mladen Krstajic to accuse referee Felix Brych of incompetence and to ask for his trial at the International Court of Justice in Hague.

Referee Mark Geiger uses the VAR during the group F match between South Korea and Germany held on June 27.   -  AP

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (against Morocco) can also complain about the same, while Iran (against Portugal), Argentina (against Croatia) and Spain (against Morocco) have been hard pressed by some of the wrong calls.

ALSO READ: VAR bumps correct decision percentage up to 99.3

“During a competition it’s not possible to have everything 100 percent correct and it’s not easy for referees to listen to some outside advice especially after they have been the boss on the field for 10 or 20 years of their career. For whatever reason perhaps there has not been a right interpretation in some cases,” Pierluigi Collina, the Chairman of FIFA’s Referees Committee, said. “But these elite referees have shown a desire to learn and also to understand the value the system brings. They still need to get used to the idea that their decision can be questioned and consider television as a help.”

While VAR has generally been successful and hardly obstructive to the flow of play – every VAR review has consumed an average of 80 seconds – there's still ambiguity about the interpretation of it, with different referees looking at it in different ways, much like their actual elucidation of the game. It's almost like cricket's DRS, where the on-field umpires still has the advantage of the benefit of doubt.

ALSO READ: A scanner on VAR

But like goal-line technology, which has come to stay and is now accepted as the last word on whether a goal stands, VAR will require experience, fine-tuning and self-correction before it stops being a part of debate.

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