VAR system all but guaranteed to have its moment in the spotlight at World Cup
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Most football fans will not know who all the singers are in the official Russia 2018 song, how to find Nizhny Novgorod or what formation Iran will use against Morocco, but there is one thing we can be sure of: there will be controVARsy.
There is a new twist at every World Cup - British teams, mascots, vuvuzelas and so on - and this edition’s innovation is the video assistant referee, which is fitting as it is often said it was the goal Frank Lampard and England were not given against Germany in 2010 that persuaded ex-FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter that resistance to technology was futile.
Six years after that disallowed goal in South Africa, FIFA’s law-making body IFAB (International Football Association Board) started a two-year global trial of video assistant referees (VAR), with England joining the great experiment late but still with more than enough time to throw up dozens of VAR-related farces, meltdowns and outrages.
FIFA, though, has been determined to ignore the naysayers and plough on, which brings us to the decision earlier this year to declare the trials a success and commit to using the system at the World Cup this summer.
Just in case you have missed the last six months, a VAR is a referee who watches the game on television. They are looking for clear mistakes made by the match officials, with whom they have a radio link, and they can intervene in four match-changing circumstances: goals, penalties, red cards and cases of mistaken identity.
Typically, the VAR, and his or her assistants, watch the game in a video booth or central control room, and they have access to all the broadcasters’ cameras and replay technology.
If they spot something the referee has missed, they can let him or her know and the matchday official can either take their word for it or ask to see the incident themselves on a screen at the side of the pitch. Or the matchday official can ask the VAR for guidance.
First tested in FIFA age-group tournaments, then trialled in big leagues in Australia, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, the system has corrected numerous howlers but it has also provoked loud criticism for delaying the game, confusing fans and players and undermining referees.
For these critics, the claims made by VAR’s backers that it will prevent controversies such as Harold Schumacher’s foul on Patrick Battiston or Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal from happening again are not worth the system’s downsides.
FIFA is not for turning, though, and a VAR team, in a control room in Moscow, will support the officials in all 64 games in Russia. Thirteen officials have been selected as VARs for the tournament and they have been picked for their experience in using the system, which means England’s Johnny-come-latelies did not make the cut.
In total, they will have access to 33 broadcast cameras, eight of which are super slow-motion and four are ultra slow-motion. They will also be able to look at pictures from two cameras dedicated to offside decisions. And in the knock-out stages, there will be two additional ultra slow-mo cameras, one behind each goal.
The really new innovation in Russia, though, will be how fans, inside and outside the stadium, will be kept informed.
As well as the now customary signals from the referee that they are talking to the VAR, (hand to the ear) or calling for an official review (drawing a rectangle in the air), a FIFA official in the control room will now explain what is happening to broadcasters via a tablet computer. This information will also be used to create what FIFA is describing as “VAR-specific graphics for TV and the giant screen in the stadium”.
FIFA hopes that putting more cameras on the action, extra bodies in the control room and information on screens at home and in the stadium will improve the decision-making, cut down on breaks in play and silence the critics.
In time, it probably will. But at least one VAR-related flap is as close as you will get to guaranteed in Russia this summer.
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