The Dutch Refereeing 2.0 project created goal-line technology. Its next creation – VAR – has proven to be more divisive among footballers, fans and pundits at the Russian World Cup. The first video referral in World Cup history happened during the Group B opener between Spain and Portugal, in Sochi. In the 24th minute, Spanish striker Diego Costa clattered against defender Pepe, elbowing him in the face. The defender fell to the ground and, in the sequence of the play, Costa sent the ball into the corner of the net. As Spain celebrated equalising the match at 1-1, referee Gianluca Rocchi consulted the video assistant referee (VAR) using his headset, asking if he had seen anything wrong with the play. The VAR, who at the time was sitting in a video operations room in Moscow, 1,620km away from the action, replied that all was OK. The goal was allowed to stand. "It was a clear foul,” Fernando Santos, Portugal’s boss, said after the match. Even Spain's Diego Costa agreed: "I saw it afterwards. You could give a foul. It's the referee's interpretation." When asked about VAR, he added: "I don't like it… I scored a goal but I didn't know whether to celebrate or not. If there is a questionable part of the play, you don't celebrate. It can make you look stupid."
VAR was conceived as part of an ambitious project conducted by The Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) called Refereeing 2.0. Its aim? To reinvent refereeing. "With all the 4G and Wi-Fi in stadia today, the referee is the only person who can’t see exactly what is happening and he’s actually the only one who should," says Lukas Brud, IFAB secretary at the International Football Association (IFAB). "We knew we had to protect referees from making mistakes that everyone can see immediately." One of the project’s first successes was the introduction of goal-line technology by FIFA in 2012, after a two-year trial conducted by KNVB. Thanks to that, at World Cup matches, referees are now instantly alerted when the ball completely crosses the line, via a technology developed by British tech company Hawk-Eye. (The same company widely adopted in professional tennis). “Soccer has always been very conservative when it came to the introduction of technology,” Brud says. “We knew that we are opening a very wide door and that if we started down this path, there would be no way back.” In 2014, KNVB began informally petitioning IFAB, the organisation responsible for developing the laws of the game, to introduce video-assistance in football matches. However, it was only after the departure of FIFA’s disgraced boss Sepp Blatter, a man notoriously adverse to football's technological enhancement, that the project received proper consideration. In October 2015, FIFA’s new boss, the Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino, held a preparatory meeting at FIFA’s HQ in Zurich to consider the Dutch proposal for VAR. The idea was well received. Most of the members of the football body were of the opinion that there had already been enough high-profile controversies in football – from Thierry Henry’s handball that qualified France to the 2010 World Cup at the expense of Ireland to Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany in the World Cup of 2014 – that justified seeking a solution that would prevent similar errors in the future. “Those were serious incidences that could have been easily corrected with video assistant referees," Brud says. "If we had mentioned the idea of introducing video referees in 2010, people would say we were crazy, but now they saw it as an opportunity to help referees and to achieve fairer outcomes in a match." At that stage, the technology was still untested in top-flight matches. The Dutch had only conducted offline testing and mock trials at the Eredivise, Netherlands top-flight championship, during the 2012-13 season. In March 2016, at IFAB’s Annual General Meeting, a decision was made to start a two-year experiment to scientifically validate VAR. Its first test came at two international friendly matches that month between Italy and Spain and Italy and Germany. “It was very successful because nothing happened," Brud laughs. It confirmed what we were hoping for, that this is not going to be used in every single match."
Initially, the intention was to use VAR to address most incidents in the game, but they quickly realised that was an unrealistic prospect. Instead they opted to reduce its remit, so as to achieve what they call "minimum interference and maximum benefit" in the game. The use of VAR is restricted to what is defined as "clear and obvious errors" in match-changing situations: possible infringement just before a goal, penalties, red cards, and instances when the referee mistakenly cautions the wrong player. “The game has become quicker and it’s increasingly difficult for referees to keep up with everything and make perfect decisions but we’re not trying to improve every problem in refereeing and that’s a misconception that people have," Brud says. "We’re trying to avoid scandals. We don’t want to create something in football that’s constantly interruptive and destroying the game." Last season, VAR was trialled by various national football associations, like the German Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A, and the Portuguese Primeira Liga. In England, it was tested at the League Cup and the FA Cup. These trials, as expected, often made headlines, for all the wrong reasons. For instance, in Australia, at the A-League grand final between Melbourne Victor and the Newcastle Jets, the referee tried to consult the system after a winning goal was scored from an offside position, to no avail as the cameras had frozen moments just before the incident. In Portugal, a review following a goal also proved impossible as the offside camera was blocked by a flag. In the final of the German cup, a penalty in the 93rd minute was not awarded. There was apparent contact when the defender hit the left leg of the player and he went down immediately in the penalty box. The referee was given advice by the VAR to look at the situation again, which he did, and still didn’t award a penalty. “Today it’s still not clear what happened," Brud says. "In many those cases the referee's decision was actually right, but people have a different understanding of the laws of the game. They have a different opinion. The referee is normally basing his decisions on pure neutral facts, but for some people they are emotionally involved and it is really difficult to understand." Brud might have a point. In an analysis carried out by sport scientists at KU Leuven, encompassing more than 800 matches in more twenty countries, it was found that the total accuracy in refereeing decisions had risen from 93 per cent to nearly 99 per cent in the four categories that VAR intervenes in. Nearly 57 per cent of VAR checks were for penalties and goals; VAR was used less than five times per match, and the average time lost due to the usage of VAR was less than 90 seconds in a game.
The World Cup in Russia is the first competition using VAR in full. The system works as follows: five officials — the referee, the two on-pitch assistants, the fourth official and the video assistant referee (VAR)— are in constant communication via headset. After an incident, either VAR makes a recommendation or the referee requests their opinion. VAR can also flag events that the referee has missed, in which case, the referee can simply accept VAR’s verdict or check a monitor located on the side of the pitch. The VAR itself is located on a video operating room at the headquarters in Moscow. The VAR will consist of one VAR and three assistants – all FIFA match officials. These referees, wearing full kit, are located in a video operations room furnished with ten screens displaying the multiple camera angles from broadcast cameras and the two offside cameras in the stadium. These touchscreens allow referees to zoom in and out and instantly select different angles. Furthermore, to counteract criticism that the decision-making process was often unclear to players and fans, replays and graphics explaining the decision are shown on giant screens inside the stadia. So far at the World Cup, four penalties have been given by VAR, and there were only five reviews in the first 17 matches of the competition. Concerns that VAR would lead for long interruptions have also been proven wrong. Of course, critics continue to point incidents were VAR has failed to rectify a decision from the referee, such as clash between Costa and Pepe before the Spain goal. For instance, at the England - Tunisia game, VAR was reviewed twice when England striker Harry Kane is seen being wrestled by Tunisian defenders, but no penalty was given. "That is what VAR is there for," Kane said to the press. "At a few corners I couldn't move." It seems to be a naive criticism, however. Without VAR those decisions would have remained the same, regardless. Surely the point of VAR is in rectifying not all, but some incorrect decisions. That's what happened in the game between Peru and Denmark, after striker Christian Cueva went down in the area. The referee waved on but 23 seconds later, stopped play to consult and correctly awarded the penalty. "The problem is that people are always looking and picking out the controversial things," Brud says. "No one cares if someone had a happy day. This is why this will always be a problem of VAR's. People just ignore how well it can work. Normally it works well, but as soon as it doesn't, the discussions start again." Whatever happens, football will never be the same again.