VAR: For FIFA Finances, Not Football

by | Jan 29, 2018

The most important contribution to the recent mass debate over Video Referee Assistants (VARs) was not, mercifully, Alan Shearer’s. It wasn’t the academics at Belgium’s Catholic University (KU) of Leuven (cue howls from Rangers conspiracy theorists) ‘kinesiology’ department, who assessed the diverse data from the two-year, global experiment (‘kinesiologists’ study body movements, performance and function…nope, me neither).

It wasn’t anyone from the International Football Association Board (Ifab), the archaically Home Nations “independent” guardians of football’s laws. Ifab directors include the English FA’s Martin Glenn and the Scottish FA’s Stewart Regan…and if you wish to stop reading now, I fully understand. It wasn’t players. ‘Kicker’ magazine asked 219 Bundesliga players if the league should “eliminate video review.” 47% agreed, 42% disagreed.

Instead, the definitive word came from Fifa’s French/Swiss COMMERCIAL officer, ex-Uefa marketing director and sub-editors’ nightmare Philipp Le Floc’h. Associated Press (AP) journo Rob Harris asked Floc’h: “Are you trying to get a sponsor for video assistant replays at the World Cup, ‘video assistant replay in association with…’?” Floc’h replied: “Yes, potentially. And definitely VAR will happen.” And as formal approval of VAR’s place in the ‘laws of the game’ isn’t due until the Ifab AGM on 3rd March, this is either solid contingency planning or evidence of a fait accompli.

Its Fifa. It’s the latter. The four Ifab directors have one vote each. But “Fifa” has four votes. Amendments to the laws require six. And if “Fifa” and its president (as much the same thing as ever) need an amendment passing, for whatever reason, then Glenn and Regan are surely among your men.

Little wonder that president Gianni Infantino has been a vociferous VAR advocate. Fifa have had well-publicised, well-earned difficulties attracting Russian World Cup commercial partners/sponsors. And the tournament is Fifa’s overwhelmingly main income source. So, Fifa/Infantino NEED VARs in Russia. Especially as “replays could lead to delays” giving Fifa chances to (drumroll) “brand up the segment on the global broadcast feed.”

However, the VAR system is demonstrably NOT ready for Russia. Reports have suggested that the “not by any means flawless” trials haven’t gone “entirely smoothly,” leading to “serious doubts about whether the problems can be ironed out” in time.

Yet, the findings were as reliably positive as a President Trump health-check. “Decision accuracy with VAR” in “reviewable categories” was 98.9%, up from 93% (“100% accuracy impossible due to human perception and subjectivity in decision-making”). The “average time ‘lost’ due to the VAR” was “under 1%,” a “very small impact” compared to the 20% ‘lost’ to free, goal and corner kicks combined.

The “median check time of the VAR” was 20 seconds (“most checks take place whilst play continues or during the ‘normal time’ of a stoppage,” e.g. goal celebration, “so have no impact on the flow of the game”). And the “median duration of a review” was 60 seconds, 39 for “headset communication from the VAR” and 70 “when there is an on-field review.”

The findings acknowledged that ‘clear and obvious errors’ were not corrected in 1 in 20 matches.” But, hey, that was “very encouraging considering the short testing period and inevitable human errors. Matters should improve over time with more experience, training etc…” How much “time” was unspecified.

And the key ‘findings’ had already come from Infantino, who ‘found’ things suspiciously quickly. The Ifab announced their “two-year experiment.” and issued formal guidelines, in March 2016. “We turned a new page in football’s history book,” Infantino gushed in September…2016, by which time VARs had officiated in NO…MATCHES…WHATSOEVER.

VARs did officiate at Fifa’s Club World Cup that December, where criticism of VAR-decisions was inversely proportional to how much they pissed off Cristiano Ronaldo. But it was seven months before VARs officiated in a professional league, Australia’s A-League being “Fifa’s mineshaft canary” (Jonathan Howcraft, Guardian Australia, 9/4/17) for the final two rounds of matches of 2016/17.

Two months later, VARs were much more active in the South Korean Under-20s World Cup, arguably the experiment’s most useful information-gatherer, producing most conceivable VAR-appropriate scenarios. Red cards (Argentina’s Lisandro Martinez getting slightly-delayed marching orders for elbowing England’s Fikayo Tomori). Penalties (including the one Venezuela starlet Adalberto Peñaranda missed in their 1-0 final loss to England). And two mind-bogglers.

A VAR-advised penalty was given to Uruguay, while Italy were mid-counter-attack (NB: in August’s Dutch Super Cup, Vitesse Arnhem had a penalty appeal turned down, then given, on VAR-advice, AFTER Feyenoord scored on the counter-attack). And a Zambia penalty was downgraded to a free-kick, while Italy’s Giuseppe Pezzella was dismissed for the foul (which wasn’t far off a ‘clear and obvious’ error).

These decisions were arguably correct. But Fifa’s own Confederations Cup soon turned back Infantino’s “page in football’s history book.” Not that he noticed. “Nothing is standing in the way of using VARs at the World Cup, as far as I’m concerned,” he declared just before the Confederations Cup final, revealing that he was the real decision-maker and that his decision totally contradicted the evidence before him.

“So far it has been successful,” he said, after Fifa confirmed that VARs had helped correct six “game-changing decisions.” “Without the VARs, we would have had a different tournament,” he added, correctly. “And a tournament which would have been a little less fair,” he concluded, a little less correctly.

Most game-changers involved a Chile-Cameroon-Germany triangle. Chile had one onside goal disallowed and one offside goal allowed against Cameroon. Cameroon’s Ernest Mabouka was sent-off for a leg-raking challenge on Emre Can, after Sebastien Siani initially saw red. And Chile’s Gonzalo Jara was only cautioned, after a three-minute video review of his demonstrably deliberate elbow to the jaw of Germany’s Timo Werner in the final, an incident so ’clear and obvious’ that Fifa’s official highlights…ignored it.

“A fitting coda to a tournament littered with VAR‑shaped controversy,” said the Guardian’s Simon Burnton. If the system “goes into the World Cup like that, it’s going to be a farce,” said ITV’s Lee Dixon. “Video assistant refereeing is the future of modern football,” said you-know-who. But ex-referees involved in the experiment offered a more-balanced perspective.

Ifab technical director, ex-EPL ref David Elleray, had a theme. “What we saw in Russia people getting used to using the system. We are in the very early stages of testing something which football has never used before. In time everybody will be much more used to the system. Some areas which weren’t as good as they might have been will be eliminated because people will become more used to it.”

The world’s most-recognisable referee, Fifa referees committee chair Pierluigi Collina, said: “We are in a sort of work in progress. We see the very positive result, but we are aware that we can improve. It would be very surprising after so few matches if it was perfect.”

Australia certainly wasn’t surprised, as the “A-League canary headed back down the mine” this season. It is, eeek, THIRTY-THREE years since Mike Ticher co-founded the ‘When Saturday Comes’ fanzine. And decades in Oz haven’t diminished his writing. But in November 2016, he dismissed VAR as “a truly terrible idea that will solve nothing, damage some of the game’s best characteristics and create new grounds for self-righteous whining about perceived injustice.” And his reasoning was skewed by some already ‘same old’ mis-analyses.

Ticher’s WSC profile said he “stopped enjoying watching Chelsea about the time they became wildly successful, which may say more about him than them.” So, he was exorcising demons by linking footage of Manchester United’s second penalty against Chelsea in 1994’s FA Cup Final to his article.

The referee was Elleray. And Ticher reported that “Elleray’s team has defined a ‘clear error,’ that may be adjudicated using VARs, as one where ‘almost everyone who is neutral agrees the decision is incorrect.’” Ticher then claimed: “You could not wish to see” a “more-clear error in a match-changing incident” than Elleray’s penalty award for Frank Sinclair’s shoulder-charge on Andrei Kanchelskis,

“That,” Ticher claimed, “just moves potential controversy from the substance of the incident to debate about how ‘clear’ or otherwise” errors are. But Elleray had provided a ‘more-clear’ distinction between ‘clear’ and ‘unclear’ errors. Sinclair may or may not have fouled Kanchelskis, so not a ‘clear and obvious’ error for VAR perusal. That the ‘foul’ was outside the penalty box WAS ‘clear and obvious’ and a VAR would have advised Elleray to correct that decision.

Ticher whined unoriginally about football’s lack of ‘natural breaks,’ calling VAR “a honking great invitation to slow it down with constant interruptions” and bemoaning (yawn) “the insidious march of video technology.” He noted too that “more complex events involving interpretations of the laws” were “much less easy to judge,” without spotting that such events were beyond VARs’ remit.

Nevertheless, Ticher did spot the key issue, VAR as “an extra sponsorship avenue.” And his article was turned from (exceptionally-written) tosh into a work of prescience by some consistent misuse/overuse of the system by off-and on-field officials.

Shaun Evans was the first A-League referee to overturn a decision on VAR-advice, Jarred Gillett uncontroversially suggesting Evans award Sydney FC a penalty in April. But Evans was also the on-field referee in October when it took FOUR minutes for VAR Strebre Delovski, a then-recently-retired A-League ref, to confirm a(nother) Sydney penalty, one of three the seemingly penalty-magnetic title-holders received against Perth Glory.

While the officials pondered…and pondered, Perth Glory coach Kenny Lowe headed for the tunnel, perhaps figuring he had time for a quick pint before the game restarted. “Very ordinary. What can I say? I can’t say anything, can I?” he later…erm…said, before offering a pitch-perfect soundbite for VAR-phobes: “We’re making a mockery of a lovely game.”

So, last month, Australia’s Football Federation (FFA) issued “tweaked” guidelines because of what reports called “poor application of the guidelines.” Officials were guided not to “go looking for infringements that are by definition not match-changing” and were also “stripped” of their ability to upgrade yellow cards to red.

The clearest indication of the “fine mess” the A-League had gotten itself into (Oliver Hardy paraphrase entirely appropriate) was that the FFA suggested that their tweaks “were not entirely in line with the trial protocol,” when they actually brought A-League interpretations far closer TO that protocol.

There were messy tales too when VAR was introduced in a number of competitions worldwide, including Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States, Italy’s Serie A. And the problems in MLS were despite the great Howard Webb being hired as it’s head of VAR operations the previous February.

Serie A’s VARs had perfect day-one PR with the award of a penalty against Juventus AT the Juventus Stadium (imagine that at Alex Ferguson-era Old Trafford). But technical and human glitches have caused VAR-related problems. And Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi wonderfully cited an ‘emotional’ glitch: “Players don’t hug each other after scoring a goal anymore, they look straight towards the referee.”

And earlier this month, the excellent, if Infantino-hostile, Inside World Football (IWF) website asked via headline if “VAR” was “showing signs of job-costing regression” after Torino supremo Sinisa Mihajlovic saw red for “angrily protesting a VAR decision which confirmed Juventus’s second goal” in a 2-0 Coppa Italia win over their Turin city rivals.

Well…no. Mihaijlovic, wrote IWF’s Andrew Warshaw, “has since been sacked, making history as the first manager to be fired after a controversial VAR decision.” But while Warshaw offered no direct link between the events, his dim view of VARs was more than anti-Infantino bias: “Hardly a week goes by without some kind of controversy over their effectiveness and whether they are in fact counter-productive.”

This has certainly been the case in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. Luís Mateus, from Portuguese on-line sports magazine Maisfutebol, had some familiar observations: “People were not really well informed about that it should be used only to correct a serious referee mistake. When the VAR is not sure of the mistake it does not correct anything. People did not understand this, coaches or players.”

And he had some observations which may become more familiar: “VAR is very political here. For fans, if the VAR is used and does not work as they think it should they start to talk of conspiracy theories.” This, as I type, seems true of certain areas of Liverpool, after whatever the **** happened at Anfield on Saturday evening.

England has thus been as ridiculously late in testing the system as they were to the concept of Fifa itself. The tests are being led by the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd, who coach and develop English football’s elite match officials. And PGMOL director Mike Riley was right to suggest that “This is a journey and we’re at the start of it. It will take two or three years for it to benefit football.”

And it comes to something when Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is a voice of calm, refusing to blame the system for Liverpool’s FA Cup home defeat to West Bromwich Albion: “It was the first time. It breaks the rhythm. It should be a little bit quicker. But it’s completely normal that it takes time,” he told the BBC’s Steve Bower. “It will become a little bit smoother in the future,” he added at the post-match press conference.

Yet, only last March, with the Ifab experiment half-over, did FA Chief Executive Glenn “expect to see (VARs) in the FA Cup next season, subject to being fully prepared and ready.” And, in December, FA director of professional game relations Andy Ambler claimed: “the FA has always been open to trialing new innovations.” And these trials demonstrated a “modern, progressive, innovative” FA Cup.

Rot. The FA said last month that they formed “part of the IFAB’s global development of the VAR system.” But English club football offered three, last-minute, games to an 804-game experiment. And while traditionalists and technophobes have dominated domestic VAR debate, their criticisms were borderline-irrelevant more by their timing than any prejudiced scepticism.

So, it doesn’t matter how pertinent (some) Shearer comments were, or whatever problems spilled out over Anfield on Saturday (if reviews take THAT long, errors can’t, by definition, BE ‘clear and obvious’), VARs will surely be in the laws of the game from March. And the system not being ready for Russia is firmly in the “nothing matters anymore” column, alongside Donald bloody Trump’s regular dishonesties and immoralities.

Even Infantino’s, ahem, ‘favoured’ Uefa president, Slovenian Aleksander Ceferin knows it isn’t ready, telling the Telegraph last week: “We want it to be very clear and it’s far from clear. Referees do not understand it correctly; fans don’t understand it correctly. It’s too early to make it a rule.” Precisely. And awkward for Infantino…if anything mattered anymore.

And anyway, Fifa has introduced untested, unclear but key law changes FOR World Cup finals before. In 1998, all tackles from behind, dangerous or not, suddenly became red-card offences. And VARs are “extra sponsorship avenues” providing opportunities to “brand up” segments. It is, again, more about the money than it should be.