FIFA’s Video Assistant Referees: How VAR Should They Go?

by | Jun 16, 2017

The Video Assistant Referees (VARs) experiment at the just-finished Under-20s World Cup in the Korean Republic was undoubtedly successful. As was the system itself, largely. Whether the people running it were as successful is a different matter…and possibly doesn’t matter. The primary object of any experiment is to subject its subject to vigorous, wide-ranging scrutiny, to determine how it would work under as many different circumstances as possible, and highlight any problems, potential or active. This experiment certainly did that.

Amid the fabulous Eurosport commentary-box set-to during the Italy/Zambia quarter-final, one issue emerged above all. A poor overall understanding of the system by pundits and commentators: where decision-making responsibilities lie, what it is, and equally importantly what it is NOT, designed for (not that Tim Caple and Stewart Robson would have argued any less passionately and entertainingly WITH such understanding).

Cricket’s Decision Review System (DRS) quickly developed from a narrow tool to eliminate clear mistakes into a virtual (in both senses) off-field umpire. So much so that certain “line” decisions (run-outs and stumpings) are now automatically referred to video replay. It has happened in part because players can request decision referrals. This, however, reflects one of cricket’s already existing quirks (endearing to some, antiquated to others), umpires’ oft-overlooked inability to give batsmen out unless the bowling/fielding side appeals. DRS, too, has accelerated the dying of the tradition of batsmen giving THEMSELVES out before an umpire’s decision, aka “walking.”

Cricket people joked that “the only time Australian batsmen walk is when their cars run out of petrol.” But far fewer batsmen “walk,” knowing DRS will reveal the truth. Instead, they stay put, in case DRS adds uncertainty, exploiting another cricketing quirk, albeit one mirroring the law of the land, giving batsmen the “benefit of the doubt.” As batting legend Geoffrey Boycott tutted, in DRS’s nascent days, players were “taking a chance with borderline calls” hoping to “get away with something.”

The VAR system in Korea showed signs of descending into similar confusion, with poor punditry echoed by players, unsurprisingly, and officials, unforgivably. Especially penalty awards in Venezuela’s last two games. They went behind in their semi-final against Uruguay when Josua Meijas was adjudged to have fouled Agustin Canobbio but only after Polish referee Szymon Marciniak was called to review the decision by the VARs. His original decision not to give a penalty looked right in real-time. And replays revealed no previously unseen mistake. Meijas clearly played the ball before catching Canobbio. It was an “I’ve seen them given” decision. But only just. And, anyway, such decisions are NOT within VARs’ remit.

The system’s twelve “principles,” are listed in the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB’s) March 2016 VAR experiment summary, the archaically-constituted IFAB (reps of the four “home” FAs and Fifa) having jurisdiction over the laws of the game. Principle four states: “If the referee decides not to stop play for an alleged offence, the decision (to allow play to continue) can be reviewed.” This is what they did, as Marciniak had run back to the halfway line, having checked on Canobbio’s welfare, before hearing the call of the VARs.

However, principle five states: “The original decision…will not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that (it) was clearly wrong.” The double-use of “clearly,” is clumsy prose but properly stresses the limitations of VAR involvement. As the summary’s more consumer-friendly introduction states, VARs must ask “not ‘was the decision correct’ but ‘was the decision clearly wrong’.”

In no way was Marciniak’s original decision “clearly wrong.” All the replays showed that. Even the one only shown to TV audiences sometime after the incident, which observers are assuming is the replay upon which any decision is based. “The director doesn’t want to show the decision,” Robson noted. Robson and co-colleague Wayne Boyce were as surprised as anyone when the decision was changed. “The referee thought about that,” Robson initially noted, expecting to hear no more about it. Boyce couldn’t “believe it. He got it right the first time” and asked if Marciniak could have had “his mind changed by committee.”

The answer, of course, was “no.” As specified by the IFAB document, which should be required reading for officials, players and pundits, from Robbie bloody Savage upwards. Robson then claimed the VAR experiment had provided “more questions than it has answers in this tournament,” which was a, probably inadvertent, vindication of it. The IFAB summary answered most of those asked in Eurosport’s commentary box in this tournament.

In the Final itself, England centre-half Fikayo Tomori gave the “review signal” to the referee, in protest at Venezuela’s penalty award. This is a cautionable offence but Tomori wasn’t cautioned. His protests were instantly called by BBC match commentator Guy Mowbray. Yet even Mowbray, about the best in his business, failed to call it out as an offence at all, let alone a cautionable one, a more significant omission given that Tomori had already been booked. He also treated England surrounding Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers and “calling for the (VAR) to be called into use here” as run-of-the-mill.

However, the afore-mentioned principle four begins: “The players and team officials must not surround the referee or attempt to influence if a decision is reviewed” (TO THE LETTER what England did). But while the principle frustratingly fails to clarify the sanction for this, the fact that drawing a TV screen in the air is a booking suggests that all the other malarkey is too.

VARs were also in use at this week’s France/England senior friendly in Paris. This showed that the problems which emerged from Korea will be more general if not checked at this early stage, after England’s goalbound Dele Alli was clumsily clipped by French defender Rafael Varane.

Referee Davide Massa gave a penalty, clearly correctly. Such offences are no longer red cards, with our old friends the IFAB changing the law in April 2016, deeming a penalty and a caution sufficient punishment. And only red cards are VARs’ business. Nonetheless, Massa referred his card decision to VAR Marco Guida. And Varane was dismissed after the two Italians’ short conflab.

The Guardian’s Simon Burnton claimed: “The VAR was only called on once, and did not excel.” But that failure to excel was not the system’s. In fact, the incident was a litany of VAR system misuse to the extent that it would be VERY helpfully “recorded for training purposes.” Indeed, the decision not to flag Alli offside initially could also have been referred as…no…I’ll stop there. The headaches are here.

Massa directly breached principle four by making “no decision” before referring the card call to the VAR. According to Daily Telegraph Chief Football Correspondent Jason Burt’s match report, “France protested, asking (Massa) to go to the (VAR).” And they did so without sanction. Goodbye, principle eight. Burt added that “it was decided that Varane did not…attempt to play the ball, thus the red card.” This misinterpreted football’s laws, not VAR principles. And “it was hard to tell, even with the benefit of the replay.” So, the VAR should not have been called. Principle five: “…clearly shows…decision…clearly wrong,” remember?

Massa should have awarded the penalty, cautioned Varane and…er…that’s it. Criticisms of the VAR in this incident were unwarranted. The same could be said of another “error” in England’s Under-20s quarter-final. Josh Onomah received a second caution for standing on Juan Aguayo’s foot as he took the ball past the Mexican’s challenge. Even a feather of common sense should have indicated to observers that Onomah could only inhibit his own progress by deliberately fouling Aguayo.

The usual complaint about the non-invoking of the VARs was trotted out. But if a qualified referee cannot draw that conclusion from the clearest, most relaxed standpoint, no system is going to rectify that error. And VARs can only review straight red cards, not second yellow cards such as Onomah’s.

VARs have, though, worked in the “classic” instances where TV replays have previously let certain pundits display their ignorance but have NOT allowed errors to be rectified. TV replays have long-applied precise technology to offside decisions. One line across the screen and viewers know instantly if someone was offside by a quiff, a nose or an erect penis (the offside law references “any of their body parts with which they can touch the ball during any other part of the play”).

Costa Rica had a goal disallowed against England which would once have given England fans in crowds, com-boxes and studios hats upon which to hang any subsequent England defeat. The goal was “fractionally-offside,” a phrase used so often you would think it was a specific offence. The decision to give the goal was correctly changed, without fuss or discernible extra disruption to the game.

Argentinian Lautaro Martinez’s dismissal for elbowing Tomori in England’s opening game was likewise correct, as the blood wiped off Tomori’s face while the VARs VAR’d demonstrated, despite Robson’s bizarre uncertainty over Martinez’s intent.

Of course, others might have had doubts. Aberdeen’s Jayden Stockley fractured Celtic defender Keiran Tierney’s jaw in the Scottish Cup final and one pundit said, out loud, that Stockley was simply “swinging his body round.” Remind me never to stand next to Stockley in a bus queue.

But the system allows officials to see incidents they otherwise missed. That’s all it can do, that’s all it should do. Robson suggested that “the problem” with the system was that it still “involves referees” and subjectivity. That maybe a “problem,” but no more than now and NOT with the “system.”

The VAR experiment in Korea was a success. The system was tested in three of the four scenarios in which it can be applied; goals, penalty/no penalty decisions and direct red cards…all three during the Italy/Zambia incident. The “mistaken identity” scenario is much the rarest and the least subject to “interpretation.” The system can do nothing BUT rectify those errors if used.

The clearest messages from the experiment, amplified by Varane’s Paris experience are that everyone who needs to know everything about VARs MUST know everything about VARs and the clear principles on what officials AND players can and cannot do must be rigorously and comprehensively applied to the point where compliance is universally instinctive.

The system is there to correct clear errors in refereeing decisions, not make decisions themselves. Its invocation does not involve the players AT ALL, and players’ attempts at involvement should be punished at birth. And, as the IFAB summary specifies, “a match is not invalidated because of wrong decision(s) involving the VAR (as the VAR is a match official).” Human error will be part of the VAR system exactly as it is part of the “naked-eye-and-whistle/flag” system.

“Minimum interference” is half a PR-friendly slogan (“minimum interference, maximum benefit”). But it is a handy mantra and governing principle. The controversies in Korea arose from complications, real or imagined. Yet the IFAB summary is only five A4-pages long. It should not be difficult to understand completely. It specifies “Considerable time and resources will be needed to educate referees and VARs to use the VAR system effectively, especially when under pressure in key match-changing situations.” Likewise, players and pundits, whose understanding would arguably accelerate the education process. And there is now a wealth of material to enable that education to be tailored to areas of greatest need. Stewart Robson, one of English-language TV’s finest pundits, may not yet agree. But the experiment was a success.

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