The world is normally obsessed with football. However, every four years, it seems as if normal life stops while the world watches the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar dazzle us with their skills.
This year is no different. I am completely engrossed with the world cup. However, I am also completely engrossed with technology.
At this year’s world cup, we have been given a look into the future of officiating. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is supposed to be making life easier. But is it really?
What is VAR?
I recently read an article on huffingtonpost.co.uk which explained what Var is without the usual drivel of screaming: COME ON ENGLAND!
VAR is a new video refereeing system for football that will provide refereeing support for all 64 games of the 2018 World Cup.
To be absolutely clear, the VAR cannot make decisions during a game. Instead it simply supports the referee down in the stadium by providing them with real-time video analysis using a huge network of cameras including some pretty advanced 3D modelling software that can specifically check if a player is offside or not.
The article points out that the role of the VAR is to check for four specific infringements throughout the game:
If a player is offside during the game.
If a player has committed a penalty-awarding foul within the penalty box.
If a player has committed a bookable foul during routine play.
If a player has been wrongly cautioned or booked due to a case of mistaken identity.
Who controls VAR?
The article adds that, unlike other video referee systems, just one team of four Video Assistant Referees provide support for all 64 matches. They do this from a centralised operations room located at the International Broadcast Centre in Moscow.
Each of the four officials has a very specific job during the game and will focus on the following tasks:
VAR – This is the lead assistant referee who watches not only the main live feed but a quad-view split-screen monitor underneath giving them all angles of the game. They are the person who speaks to the referee in the stadium.
AVAR1 – This referee’s job is to look at the main live feed and alert the rest of the team if an incident has been selected for review or is being looked into by the officials down on the ground.
AVAR2 – The AVAR2′s role is to look at the TV programme feed (so what we see when we’re watching a match live) and to help factor any angles caught by this feed into the decision making.
AVAR3 – Finally, the AVAR3 has potentially the most technical job out of the four. Their responsibility is to constantly asses the match for any offside infractions and to alert the VAR to these as and when they’re spotted. They do this using a special piece of software similar to Hawkeye.
How does VAR work?
The article points out that, quite simply, VAR works because it sees every conceivable angle of the football game at any one moment.
During each game the VAR has access to a whopping 33 different cameras including eight super slow motion cameras, two ultra slow motion cameras, two Ultra-HD cameras and two specific smart cameras designed to detect when a player is offside.
The article adds that in addition to the normal cameras, the referee has access to 3D offside system that has been developed by Hawkeye (you might know them from tennis or cricket).
The Hawkeye system uses laser tracking to overlay a virtual grid of offside lines onto the pitch. The grid is painstakingly calibrated by both Hawkeye and FIFA before each game so the referee’s can make their decisions with the confidence that if a player looks offside, they are.
The article points out that once the VAR team has analysed a potential incident it can then speak directly to the referee and make their recommendation.
The Referee then has the ability to head over to a special booth at the side of the pitch and see the same footage that the VAR team have presented on a high-resolution display.
The article adds that, finally, upon seeing the footage the referee has the ability to either stand by their original decision or agree with the recommendation of the VAR.
But does it work?
Like with most technology. In some ways it does work and in others it doesn’t. A recent article on AFP.com pointed out the follies of the landmark VAR system.
The article pointed out that VAR has grabbed centre stage at the 2018 Soccer World Cup, with the system that was supposed to provide “minimum interference” instead having a major and highly controversial impact.
The final games in Group B on Monday were heading into injury time with Portugal on course to top their group and Spain set to finish second, when the advice of the Video Assistant Referee officials in two separate games changed everything.
The article adds that in Kaliningrad, Spain were awarded an equaliser to snatch a 2-2 draw against Morocco when an Iago Aspas goal was given after VAR helped Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov to reverse a mistaken offside call.
At the same time in Saransk, Paraguay official Enrique Caceres was persuaded to give Iran a penalty for a handball by Portugal’s Cedric Soares that could hardly be considered deliberate.
The plot thickens
The AFP article pointed out that Karim Ansarifard netted the spot-kick, earning Iran a 1-1 draw, and relegating the European champions to second place in the section.
Now Cristiano Ronaldo and his team must face Uruguay in the last 16. In contrast, Spain will probably be happier with a tie against hosts Russia in Moscow and could now have a theoretically easier path to the final.
The article adds that that hardly sits well with FIFA’s statement as they introduced the new system to the biggest tournament on Earth, saying: “Our goal is minimum interference for maximum benefit.”
Of course, that was a reference to the flow of the game itself rather than the potential impact decisions could have further down the line.
Morocco’s Noureddine Amrabat made clear his feelings at the end of Monday’s game as he looked into a television camera and mouthed: “VAR, it’s bullshit”.
The article points out that while Spain’s equaliser was correctly given, the decisions in Saransk were more controversial.
Ronaldo missed a penalty awarded after the referee reversed his decision, and was later shown a yellow card following a review of a possible elbow offence.
It had the look of a fudged decision when an elbow would normally lead to a red for violent conduct.
“An elbow is a red card in the rules. In the rules it doesn’t say if it is (Lionel) Messi or Ronaldo,” fumed Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, who said VAR was “not going well”.
The article adds that Iran are now out, and they leave a competition that is being dominated by VAR to an extent possibly greater than the system’s critics could have imagined.
There have already been 20 penalties given at this World Cup, a tournament record before the group stage has even concluded.
Many of those, such as Andreas Granqvist’s winner for Sweden against South Korea, were awarded after confirmation by VAR.
Yet the Swedes were also the victims of a major officiating error when they were denied an early penalty in their defeat against Germany for a foul by Jerome Boateng on Marcus Berg that was clear on slow-motion replays.
“If we have the system it’s very unfortunate that he doesn’t feel he can go and have a look,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson of Polish referee Szymon Marciniak.
The article points out that as the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the guardians of the laws of the game, say, only the referee can initiate a review.
One of the officials in the Video Assistant Referee team sees an incident and tells the referee, who then decides whether to review it. The system is clearly not flawless, and that inevitably leads to frustrations.
The article adds that there might also be a concern that reviews of slowed-down replays can make in-game incidents appear worse than they were in reality.
In addition, the system can still lead to confusion for fans in the stadium who do not have the same grasp of what is happening as television viewers.
FIFA will have been braced for the criticism, and will defend the system during a briefing on Friday, at the end of the group stage, at which refereeing chief Pierluigi Collina and VAR project leader Roberto Rosetti will appear.
“It will enable us to present detailed analysis and statistics illustrating the results of VAR during the initial phase,” world football’s governing body told AFP.