The FIFA World Cup currently being played in Russia has seen the first ever implementation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in a major competition.

The VAR has three assistants (AVARs) and four replay operators (ROs). The latter provide the best possible camera angles to review match situations and there are also two cameras for offside.

The VAR team supports the decision-making process of the referee in four match changing situations – goals and offences leading up to a goal, penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty, direct red card incidents (not 2nd yellow cards), and cases of mistaken identity.

The VAR communicates with the referee only in cases of clear and obvious errors or serious missed incidents. On the other hand, the referee can delay the restart of play to communicate with the VAR team and will signal this by pointing to his ear.

When the referee signals the outline of a tv screen, it means that a match situation needs to be reviewed. The referee either acts on information received from the VAR team or personally reviews the incident at the referee review area.

It usually takes a few seconds until the VAR orders the check, however the operator then needs to find the best video angle. The incident is normally reviewed more than once and this analysis takes some time to be completed.

The VAR team then confirms that the attacking possession has been clean, i.e. no foul, no offside etc., and waits until the ball is in a neutral zone. VAR checks may last long, but surely accuracy is more important than speed.

The VAR is proving its worth in terms of correct decisions taken. At the FIFA World Cup in Russia, it has been an essential tool to ensure fair evaluations of critical incidents, such as penalty area situations.

At a Media Briefing in Moscow on Friday, FIFA Referees Committee Chairman Pierluigi Collina has described refereeing at the World Cup in the 48 group stage games as “very, very close to perfection.”

The objective of the VAR is not to reach perfect decisions, but to avoid obvious refereeing errors

Pierluigi Collina explained that without the use of the VAR, referees at the World Cup would have been 95% precise, however the implementation of the VAR has brought a staggering 99.3% of correct decisions taken by the world’s best match officials.

A total of 335 incidents have been checked by the VAR Team in the 48 group stage matches, including all 122 goals scored – an average of 6.9 situations per game.

There were 17 VAR reviews – 14 carried out by referees after checking match situations on monitors and 3 by video assistant referees on factual decisions.

A fine example was the penalty awarded to Brazil in their Group E match against Costa Rica in St Petersburg, when Neymar went down in the penalty area after a normal challenge and Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers initially awarded a penalty, then reversed his decision following VAR’s intervention.

In the Group D encounter between Nigeria and Iceland in Volgograd, the referee from New Zealand Matt Conger also used the VAR system to confirm that Iceland’s Alfred Finnbogason had been fouled by Nigerian defender Tyronne Ebuehi in the penalty area prior to awarding a penalty kick to Iceland.

On the other hand, Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan did not ask for official reviews of two possible holding offences in the penalty area on England captain Harry Kane in their Group G match against Tunisia in Volgograd.

Wilmar Roldan’s decisions can be supported if he judged both incidents as normal football body contact. The objective of the VAR is not to reach perfect decisions, but to avoid obvious refereeing errors.

It is important to note that the leading mindset in The International Football Association Board (IFAB), who approved the use of the VAR at the FIFA World Cup, is not “is the decision correct?” but “was the decision clearly wrong?”

This explains why FIFA Refereeing boss Pierluigi Collina compared the VAR system to a parachute the referee can use if his life is in danger.

In its protocol, IFAB clarify that the aim of the VAR is not to achieve 100% accuracy for all decisions, since there is no desire to eliminate the essential flow and emotions of football, which result from the game’s almost non-stop action and the general absence of lengthy stoppages.

IFAB’s philosophy is ‘minimum interference – maximum benefit’ and the referee (not the VAR) remains the key decision maker in all match situations.

As witnessed at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the main aim of the VAR is to increase fairness not to take over the role of the referee. This, in my opinion, has been successfully achieved.


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