There is a lot of responsibility placed on a football match referee. A wrong call, a poor decision, a missed incident or handing out a red or yellow card can completely change the outcome of a match.
With twenty-two players on the pitch in a fast and competitive match, the ball moving at a pace, tackles taking place, players in front and behind and trying to get his attention, and a book full of rules to be followed, a referee needs to be everywhere at once and to have eyes in the back of his head.
True, the referee is supported by his linesmen, but still, he has a big job. Surprisingly enough, referees get it right 95% of the time. But, it is the 5% of incorrect decisions on which the fans and the media focus.
Modern technology has produced the video assistant referee (VAR) system to protect the referee against this 5% inaccuracy rate.
The idea of VAR has been around since 2010. Trials of the system were carried out in the Netherlands in the 2012-2013 season. However, following a lack of support by FIFA, nothing then happened until a change of heart resulted in further trials being approved in 2016.
From then on, things moved quickly. During the period 2017-2019, associations and leagues around the world approved the use of the system. During the same period, some international matches successfully used the system. As a result, VAR was used for the 2018 World Cup. Using the system turned out to be a success - only four players had to be sent off during the whole tournament.
VAR technology has also been adopted for the World Cup 2022 qualifier matches. Perhaps we can assume that it will be used during the actual tournament.
Simply put, VAR technology uses cameras to monitor stadium games to aid the referee in decision making. Camera images are watched by a team of VAR officials who, as necessary, communicate via radio with the on-pitch officials.
In practice, there is, of course, a lot more involved.
When football was first broadcast, just two cameras were used at a stadium match with around eight personnel managing the system. Now with broadcasting and VAR, there can be more than 30 cameras in the stadium with over 100 support personnel. The types of cameras used may include broadcast cameras, slow motion cameras, high definition wide-angle and tight angle cameras, and offside cameras.
In addition to the cameras:
- A comprehensive, two-way, audio communications system allows the match officials and the VAR system operatives to talk to each other.
- An on-field review area, with a mobile monitor, allows the referee to view the information provided by the VAR system when making his match decisions. There may also be giant screen coverage available at the stadium for the spectators.
- At the centre of the system is a video operations room (VOR). The VOR can be remote or located locally to the stadium, in a designated room, a container or a trailer. All the cameras at the stadium can be linked and synchronised to transmit to the VOR. Verbal communications to and from the on-field officials are centred in the VOR. The VOR even has an internal camera monitoring all the activities that take place in it during a match - decisions that could affect the outcome of a game are taken very seriously!
- In the VOR, as a basic, there is a video assistant referee (VAR), an assistant video assistant referee (AVAR), and a replay operator (RO). There may also be a second AVAR responsible for offside decisions.
- In terms of equipment, the VAR will have two monitors – one from the main-play camera and one with split screens to show the output of other selected cameras. The AVAR, AVAR2 and the RO will all have suitable monitors. An offside monitor has special software that allows the operator to superimpose horizontal and vertical grid lines onto the screen. These lines are used to accurately identify players’ positions in relation to each other and the offside line.
- In addition, all VOR personnel and the on-field officials each have personal audio communications equipment – headset and microphone. Some exchanges are open-microphone, some can only be sent and heard on a push-to-talk basis, and some are limited to VOR staff only. All exchanges are recorded.
- VOR personnel also have tagging devices to electronically mark incidents on the game timeline - this is for replay purposes.
- And, of course, there is all the associated control and recording equipment for the system.
For the World Cup and international matches, the VOR could contain up to 3 times this amount of staff and equipment; there will undoubtedly be a FIFA official involved. Before a game, the VAR system has to be thoroughly tested and approved to show that it is working correctly. FIFA has defined the minimum standards for a system. Individual confederations, associations and national leagues define their own requirements around these minimum standards.
VAR Use On Match Day
During a match, the VAR system is used to provide the referee with advice and decisions relating to goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identity. The referee can signal for information from the VAR or VAR operatives can contact the referee with information, such as when there have been incidents that affect play. Replays can be shown at the on-field review monitor to help the referee to make his decisions - this is called an on-pitch review.
Actions and decisions can be displayed on giant stadium screens or broadcast on the stadium loudspeakers.
In the event a decision has been made or reversed, following a VAR input, the referee makes a large rectangular signal with his arms.
The decision to allow or to disallow a goal can be affected by an offside incident, shirt pulling or another type of foul. These can all be checked by the VAR.
Penalties can be awarded or taken away following a review by the VAR. Similarly, a penalty retake can be granted, for instance, if the VAR detects the goalie moving off of his line.
Red cards for violent conduct or dangerous tackles can be given or reversed once the VAR has examined the replays.
If the referee sends off or books the wrong player, the decision can be corrected following advice from the VAR.
Imagine how different the outcome of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final match between Argentina and England would have been had VAR technology been around! Maradonna's 'hand of God' may have landed him with a red card instead of the World Cup.
The Future of VAR Technology
So, the referee is no longer on his own; he has back-up and lots of extra eyes all around him. Does this make for a better, fairer game, or has it changed the nature of the game, does it introduce unnecessary breaks in play? Will we even need a referee on the pitch in the future? The system has its followers and its opponents. It has been introduced in less than a decade, and only time will tell how good it is. Whatever, VAR is probably here to stay.
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