What is VAR and how is it being used at the FIFA Women’s World

We’re hearing a lot about technology in football at the moment and specifically about VAR, the Video Assistant Referee.

After use in last year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia and on various other occasions like certain games in last year’s FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, it’s being used during this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.

What is VAR and what does it mean? 

The Video Assistant Referee supports the work of the on-field referee and his or her assistants. They can review incidents within seconds as they are not only watching the game, but they also have access to multiple replays and different angles. As you’ll hear, they’re rarely located at the ground. 

The intention of VAR is to sort out the question of “was the decision clearly wrong?” across four types of key decisions.

  • Goal or no goal decisions (offences leading up to a goal)
  • Penalty or no penalty decisions    
  • Direct red card decisions (not second yellow cards)
  • Mistaken identity

How did VAR come about?

As recently as 2012, technology was being kept out of football. A decision that year to enable goalline technology (thanks in part to the reaction to Frank Lampard’s phantom 2010 World Cup goal in Bloemfontein) saw it used at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and in the Premier League, but there was still a greater goal – to irradicate bad decisions where there was “a clear and obvious mistake”.

Rules in Association Football move slowly. They are managed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) – not even FIFA, the world governing body. IFAB is an independent body that resists unnecessary changes and keeps football away from the yo-yo rule-making seen in some other sports. 

But in 2016 the IFAB decided to allow experimentation with VAR looking for “clear errors in match-changing situations” and subsequently approved it for use. It was used in last summer’s World Cup, the Nations League and the FA Cup in England among others. 

Issues with VAR so far – does it work?

The intention of VAR was not to have lengthy stoppages in the game but sometimes that hasn’t worked. Stoppages of several minutes were seen in last year’s World Cup. FIFA showed replays on the big screen at last year’s World Cup to remove confusion. The message is clear: VAR isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

The idea behind VAR is not, as in rugby, to refer things upstairs for a decision. Instead, the intention of VAR – and the instruction given to referees at the World Cup – is to make the decision and let VAR sort things out afterwards. For close offside calls, assistant referees have been told to keep their flags down and let VAR decide.

Another criticism is that goals can be celebrated and yet it’s 30 seconds later that everyone realises that the goal is being checked for it to be subsequently ruled out. We’ve also seen a bunch of controversial penalties for handball because ‘intent’ isn’t taken into consideration – instead, it’s simply if the hand is hit by the ball in an unnatural position. We also saw this occur during the Paris St Germain vs Manchester United game in the Champions League earlier this year. 

FIFA head of refereeing Massimo Busacca sounded a note of caution about VAR last year; that it isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing. “We are looking to have incredible uniformity and consistency, but don’t think that technology solves the problem 100 percent” he said during a media briefing.

“In front of video, you will always have a human who is making an interpretation. It’s not [like] goal-line technology with a vibration [on the referees wrist]. It’s an interpretation.”

How is VAR being used at the Women’s World Cup? 

VAR officials will only communicate with those on the field of play if there are “clear and obvious mistakes” (that phrase again) or something has been missed across the aforementioned four areas. But they can’t stop play for this. 

From the point of view of the referees on the field, if they feel they need to review something then they make a clear sign to indicate a review (as if they’re drawing a TV screen with their fingers) and they can review the footage at the side of the pitch and communicate with the VAR. To do this they need to go to the Referee Review Area (RRA) which is a marked area with the monitor at the side of the pitch. 

The on-field referee will also show the sign to indicate a review if the VAR interjects with key information to change a decision. Just like broadcasters, VARs have access to numerous broadcast cameras. These include additional offside cameras are only available to the VAR team. 

The VAR officials will officiate from the video operation room (VOR) at the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Paris. 27 referees and 48 assistant referees took part in VAR training earlier in the year. There are 15 VARs in attendance at the tournament and 10 of those worked as VARs or referees at last year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. 

We’ve previously visited a couple of IBC facilities and they are massive, with host broadcasters all having edit suites, offices and the ability to take pictures from all sources and studios. Essentially feeds from each of the stadia go via fibre to the IBC which is then taken by each broadcaster, mixed with studio segments and other footage and so on. 

Sony-owned Hawk-Eye is providing the goalline and VAR technologies at the World Cup.

How a VAR team works

The main VAR has a main display as well as a secondary one where they can see four alternative camera angles. They also communicate directly with the referee, again via a fibre line.

There are then two extra VARS. One keeps the VAR up-to-date with live play if an incident is being reviewed (they’re known as the AVAR1).

Another (AVAR2) is dedicated to offside decisions – they can see each goal area on their screens. They anticipate if there might be a problem with play and checks ahead to speed up the review process. The offside displays feature a 3D line system which is superimposed by software. You can see that working in this video.

So that broadcasters (and therefore viewers and listeners) can be kept informed, a dedicated person in the VOR will provide information via a touch screen about the stages of the review, including the reason for it taking place.

This process will also mean that the correct graphics are generated for the screens in the stadium. When a decision is made, both the crowd and broadcasters will know as soon as the referee is told. 

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