Lentis/Instant Replay in International Soccer
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is the video review program that FIFA instituted in the Russia 2018 World Cup. According to FIFA, VAR is a new technology that brings greater transparency to referee decisions and increases the quality of soccer . However, VAR is not a new innovation and it effects on soccer are unproven. VAR was developed before the 2014 Brazil Cup, but was not implemented . In the past, FIFA has claimed video review would disrupt the flow of a soccer game, and trial runs of VAR before 2018 World Cup had limited success . Therefore why did FIFA decide to implement VAR into the largest sporting event in the world? In this chapter, we will explore why VAR was used, how it was used, and what effect it has on soccer.
Pre World Cup History of VAR
VAR Creation and FIFA reaction
In 2010, VAR was introduced by the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB). The system was designed to protect referees from committing controversial errors. In 2012, the system had major success due to its goal line technology. After testing, KNVB petitioned for its integration into international football. At first, the idea was rejected and it wasn’t until Sepp Blatter departed from presidency, in 2015, where FIFA decided to experiment it in international football. FIFA’s justification lied within decreasing errors to help referees achieve fairer outcomes in games.
MLS VAR Trial
VARs introduction into the MLS started in a match involving Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas. A player from the FC Dallas was sent a through ball and collided with the goalkeeper. The referee let the play continue and as a consequence ended up in a goal. VAR intervened when the goal was allowed and continued to communicate information to the referee. The referee took the information and proceeded to signal a video reviewal. After watching the replay, the initial decision was changed to a foul .
2017 FIFA Confederations Cup
The VAR system was tested in the 2017 Confederations Cup final. The candidates, Germany and Chile, were subject to the system after an incident occurring late game. An elbow to the face was captured by the VAR and was consulted to the match officials. Upon further reviewal from the match officials, a yellow card was issued to the foul offender. The use of VAR in this situation was controversial. A former Stoke defender, Danny Higginbotham, commented “VAR will only work with factual decisions, not subjective ones. Blatant red card but when based on a ref's opinion, VAR pointless.” Players, spectators, and officials have been left in doubt of VARs success in soccer.
FA Cup Wavy Lines
FIFA decided to trial VAR in the 2017 Football Association (FA) Cup. During a game, an incident occurred when Juan Mata, a Manchester United player, scored against Huddersfield. At first, the goal was allowed, but the VAR reviewed the information and communicated back to the referee, who decided to personally review the play. During the reviewal, replay of the offside was broadcasted. Television spectators were shown an image with wavy lines which illustrates all United players as onside. After reviewal, game officials decided to nullify the goal. Because the broadcasted incident contradicted VAR, it caused confusion between spectators and game officials. As a result, the integrity of VAR was compromised .
VAR at the World Cup
Video Assistant Referee is an instant replay system that assists the center referee in making 4 game changing decisions.
- Goals and offenses leading to goals. The VAR team can signal the center referee to check if the ball indeed did cross the line, or if the team who scored the goal committed a foul immediately before scoring the goal.
- Penalty decisions. The VAR team can review fouls that occur in the box and penalty decisions made by the center to inform him of possible missed or wrong calls.
- Direct red cards only. VAR reviews referee’s decision to give a player a red card.
- Mistaken identity. VAR makes sure that yellow and red cards are given to the correct player.
An important feature of VAR is that the referee on the field makes the decision . The VAR team is made up of 4 top match officials located in FIFA Operation Room in Moscow. The team has access to every broadcast camera as well as two dedicated offside cameras. VAR team communicates with the center referee through a headset and through a monitor placed at midfield. Center referee can delay the restart of a game to talk with the VAR team by placing on hand to his ear, and can stop the clock to review a play by drawing a box in the air . According to FIFA, VAR increased call correctness of the World Cup from 95% to 99.3% . VAR was used in all 64 matches to check 335 incidents of which 17 warranted VAR reviews. The average time of a VAR review was 80 seconds .
In order to understand the inner workings of Video Assistant Replay (VAR), first we must identify the interests groups and their agendas.
FIFA, the International Soccer Governing Board, is concerned with quality soccer that keeps fans watching, but their real concern is centered around profits. They make money off tournament ticket sales, television rights, brand sponsorships, and equipment licenses . To continue being profitable, they create an overall positive image on social media platforms, implement new technology that makes the sport better, and make sure that referees are well trained so they can perform their job to the best of their ability. All of these methods keep fans watching and engaged with the sport and in turn, make FIFA more money.
Russia was the host country of the 2018 World Cup. Although Russia is another national team competing in the tournament, they are classified differently since they are hosting the tournament. As a host, they want to show off Russia to the rest of the world, but since they are a competing team, they also want to win the cup. Russia is concerned with national pride and the legitimacy of the tournament that they are hosting . Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, tends to have a higher approval rating as Russia's national pride increases. This happened in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics . If the 2018 World Cup was ultimately deemed invalid, Russia would look bad, regardless of if they win or not. They implemented the latest VAR technology to increase the legitimacy of the tournament.
The teams playing in the tournament have a primary objective of winning the tournament, which will promote the overall image of their country. They want games to be clean and legit, but in reality, they want to do whatever it takes to win the tournament . Sometimes, this involves play that isn’t entirely clean, which VAR could help to cut down.
Fans can be classified as fans of the World Cup, but also soccer in general as a sport. They want to see their team win the tournament, but since they are fans of soccer, they want to see quality, clean matches. To show team pride, they post on social media platforms about their team, watch games on TV, or even attend the tournament in person .
Analysis of VAR
VAR's Use at 2018 Russia World Cup
After looking at the participant's agendas and past events, it is clear that the decision to use VAR in this World Cup is not purely motivated by quality of soccer. There was simply not enough successful tests of VAR for FIFA to risk using VAR in their most important tournament. However, VAR did change the conversation away from both Russia and FIFA recent scandals. Russia has been plagued by doping scandals from the Rio summer Olympics and Sochi winter Olympics . FIFA has been accused of accepting bribes for the location choose of 2022 World Cup . Supposedly Qatar dignitaries bribe FIFA officials to win the World Cup bid despite Qatar lacking soccer stadiums, suitable weather conditions, or a Qatar national soccer team (Qatar_2022_FIFA_World_Cup_bid). Both Russia and FIFA change the narrative behind the 2018 World Cup from being corrupt to being fair by implementing VAR. This theory also explains why the VAR system gives the center referee the final call. Typically assistant referees are able to make calls independently if they feel the center referee missed something, and in the spirit of trying to preserve soccer's unique running clock feature it would of made a lot of sense to allow video assistant referees to due the same thing. However, since all the video replay reviews were made in Moscow it would have left Russia open to legitimacy questions. Thus FIFA made sure that the center referee had the final say.
Positives of VAR
While the decision to use VAR was political, VAR did have some positives effects. The review of penalty decisions had two positive impacts on soccer; it reduced corner kick mob mentality, and reduced pressure on referee's penalty decisions. Corner kick mob mentality is when both teams commit fouls because in the chaos of a corner kick it is hard for the referee to make a call. This phenomenon is similar to when protestors feel free to commit crimes because of unanimity . After a few initial VAR reviews of corner kicks early on in the World Cup, players selectively stop blatantly fouling their opponents fearing that VAR would award a foul . In addition, VAR decreased referee pressure around penalty decisions. This world cup saw 29 penalties awarded breaking the previous record of 17 penalties . Most attribute this to VAR . Penalties are hard calls to make because they usually lead to a goal . With VAR, referees can review penalty decisions to ensure that they made the right call. In the Brazil vs. Costa Rica game the referee awarded a penalty for Brazil after Neymar went down while a defender's arm was on his chest. However after VAR review, it was clear that Neymar had embellished the contact by diving and the call was reversed . In the Senegal vs. Colombia, Davidson Sanchez made a last ditch slide tackle on Sadio Mane. The referee initially awarded a penalty kick, but upon VAR review reverse his decision since replay showed that Sanchez had kicked the ball before hitting Mane . Referees with VAR are more likely to award penalties when they previously wouldn't have because VAR lets them reverse bad calls.
VAR also prevented a lot of discourse on other controversial calls. Rarely the referee issues the wrong person a yellow or red card . With FIFA's world cup rule that two yellow cards in two games is cause for suspension from the next game, mistaken identity was under increase scrutiny . FIFA placed mistaken identity into the VAR specifications to prevent compromising their claim that match results are final at the last whistle. Thus in the France vs. Peru game when the referee mistakenly gave Edison Flores a yellow card, which would of lead to his suspension, VAR corrected the referee .
FIFA also prevented referees from missing extreme calls. With only 3 referees watching 22 players, players can sometimes get away with red card offenses. In 2009, Elizabeth Lambert pulled a BYU college opponent to the ground by her pony tail when the referee wasn't looking . On three separate occasions Urugary's Luis Swarez has bit his opponents when he thought the referee wouldn't notice . FIFA included direct red cards in VAR to prevent players from getting away with extreme acts of violence on the pitch.
Criticism of VAR
VAR has faced a lot of criticism . The main problem with VAR is that it doesn't make soccer more fair. If both teams have a few more wrong calls per game, the game is still fair and soccer enthusiast accept that referees aren't going to get every call right in the moment. Video repay removes that allowance . Now every close call is harder to conclude because the referee has extra time to review it, and no matter the outcome one team is always going to be upset. In the Iran vs. Portugal game the referee awarded a penalty to Iran when the ball was kick at point blank range right into Portugal's Soares' arm . Upon review the referee awarded a penalty that costed Portugal top spot in their group. The hand ball rule states that the player must deliberately handle the ball. Portugal felt that since Soares' arm was at his side and he had no time to react it wasn't deliberate, and certainly VAR shouldn't of changed the call on the field . Iran felt the Soares had denied a goal scoring opportunity with his arm and therefore the penalty was justified . No matter the decision this call was going to be controversial, and it is even more controversial due to VAR.
In addition, fans were also upset over calls VAR didn't review. In England vs. Tunsisa, England's Harry Kane was pulled down in the box on a corner kick on two separate occasions . Even though VAR checked the incident, they didn't review the call or award a penalty. Lots of fans were upset over the referee decision not to use VAR as there was clearly a foul on both occasions . The use of VAR in soccer causes simply more discourse about bad calls, and can contribute to a feeling that the games are rigged. The use of VAR in the World Cup also invited future change that some worry could hurt the game of soccer. Soccer is unique in that it has a 45 minute running clock that is uninterrupted by planned commercial breaks . Thus soccer games take a predictable about of time that can be scheduled around, unlike sports such as baseball and football which have seen a recent increase in game time . Old school soccer fans worry that VAR could disrupt the flow of the game , and increase the amount of time they have to commit to watch an entire game. Furthermore, players have complained that VAR ruins the joy of scoring a goal. Diego Costa stated that VAR, "can make you look stupid," if you celebrate for a goal that is reverse by VAR . While player celebrations haven't taken a hit, it is worth noting that having to wait for VAR to check the every goal before celebrating isn't as exciting as when the commentator shouts "GOALLLLLLLLL" as soon as the ball hits the back of the net.
Post World Cup Implementation
EPL and Champions League Take on VAR
Following the 2018 World Cup, the English Premier League (EPL) and the Champions League have taken steps to implement the latest VAR technology. Although the EPL voted against VAR use in the 2018-2019 season, the EPL has ramped up VAR trials and plans to implement VAR next season. This sudden change of events is largely due to a disallowed goal that caused Southampton the win over Watford. If VAR was used, Southampton would have won.
Despite not using VAR in the group stage, the Champion’s League plans to add VAR in the knockout rounds of the 2018-2019 season. This change is largely due to a red card issued to Cristiano Ronaldo for appearing to pull the hair of a Valencia defender in September 2018. VAR would have corrected the invalid red card and Ronaldo would have been allowed to play in the following game. Since the World Cup, fans expect VAR to catch these types of referee mistakes.
Conclusions about Video Review in Soccer
Technology causes disruption
VAR had both positive effects on the game of soccer and valid criticism. The best way to reconcile these differences is to admit that whenever technology enters a sport there will always be change. FIFA was able to fix a lot of the past issues it had technically and politically at the expense of teams' and fan's agendas.
Technology's implementation is political
Video review's implementation has more to due with political forces than technological advancements. VAR technology wasn't new and its benefits hadn't been tested. Political agendas pressured FIFA to change the narrative behind the world cup from scandal to one of increased fairness. Therefore they sought out VAR technology to further their agenda.
Seeking correctness doesn't increase quality of game
While VAR increased call correctness, it didn't make soccer seem more fair. VAR only led to more public discourse over missed VAR reviews and wrong VAR reviews. Soccer lost its unique running clock feature. Fans and teams were more upset when a close VAR call didn't go their way. If VAR made soccer more correct it did so at the expense of other valuable game qualities.
As this is a developing technology, further research could look into implementation of VAR in other leagues. Research could be done to see if the effects we uncovered persist throughout all leagues, or if new effects emerge.