“Football is not a matter of life and death. Let me assure you, it’s much more than that.” – Bill Shankly, Manager, Liverpool (1959-1974)
Never has the meaning of this quote held more potent than the geo-politically charged clash between England and Argentina of Mexique 1986. While most may not remember the match in its entirety, what happened in the 52nd minute of the match would become football’s most infamous incident. Diego Maradona’s stalemate breaking goal that was later dubbed ‘Hand of God’ would boost Argentina into the semi-finals and eventually win the World Cup.
Fast forward to the present day. Technology like Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) and Goal Line Technology (GLT) has made it possible to detect even the tiniest of misgivings, making the football field one of the most tightly monitored places on the planet. All to eliminate the chance of ‘divine’ interventions like the one in 1986.
But technology seems to be breaking new ground every day. And with each small advancement in technology, football, as a sport, takes another evolutionary step. This brings us to the latest addition to the repertoire of technology deployed on the football field: Video Assistant Referee or VAR.
After the huge positive response received by the Goal Line Technology in World Cup 2014 in Brazil, it was clear that technology was a prime tool in improving in-game decisions for match officials. This made Russia, the venue of the World Cup 2018, the perfect stage for the introduction of the VAR system, the collective fifth match official. But this is not the first time the football community is witnessing the use of the Video Assistant Referee. The VAR system was trialed in 2017 during the FA Cup and Carabao Cup as well as several trial runs at the German and Italian Leagues. However, the use of VAR in this year’s World Cup makes it an official FIFA tech.
The use of VAR has been very well defined by FIFA. The fifth match official can only play a role in four distinct scenarios, three incidental and one administrative.
Goal: In this scenario, the VAR assists the referee in denying a goal based on an infringement leading up to the goal. The time taken to review the incident does not have any impact on the game since the play had already been interrupted from the ball crossing the goal line.
Penalty Decision: In this particular role, the Video Assistant Referee reviews the validity of a penalty decision. In case the system finds the decision faulty, the information is conveyed to the on-pitch referee who then holds the right to rescind the penalty decision.
Direct Red Card: As a means to eliminate refereeing mistakes, the VAR system also ensures that no wrong decision is made in sending of a player for misconduct. However, this rule only applies if the send-off is a direct red card. If a player is sent off upon a second yellow card, a VAR review is not applicable.
Mistaken Identity: In case the first match official sends of the wrong player, the VAR can inform him of the fault and the right player can then be disciplined.
During this year’s World Cup matches, if you happen to see the referee touching his headset, this means that he is consulting the Video Assistant Referee. But what is going on at the other end of the line?
The Video Assistant Referee is not a one man army. In fact, he is accompanied by three other Assistant Video Assistant Referees (AVARs) at the Video Operation Room (VOR) at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) in Moscow, each of whom have very specific roles to play during a review. While the main VAR leads the team and has direct communication with the first match official, here’s what the three AVARs are doing:
AVAR 1: The first AVAR is keeping track of the main camera and live play during the review period.
AVAR 2: The second AVAR is responsible for checking offside incidents that lead to any of the above scenarios where the VAR team may be consulted.
AVAR 3: The third AVAR is responsible for viewing the TV feed and keeping clear communication flow between the VAR and AVAR 2 who is at the offside station.
In order to eliminate any chance of human error, FIFA has gone the full length by installing 33 broadcast cameras including eight super slow-motion cameras and four ultra-slow-motion cameras with two additional ultra-slow-motion cameras added after the league stage.
All things considered, the VAR system is quite an impressive surveillance feat. And the company behind the development of the system is Hawk-Eye Innovations. The system leverages their proprietary SMART (Synchronized Multi-Angle Replay Technology) to provide the system with the required information. The technology achieves its golden efficiency by using servers and software that not only process the information but archive it as well for faster decisions through library access.
Hawk-Eye Innovations is no stranger to sports tech. Their patrons include various sporting communities like cricket, tennis, volleyball, and Gaelic football.
As widely accepted as the VAR is, the opinions regarding it are quite mixed across the various major regional leagues. For instance, the Spanish La Liga has already signed off on the use of VAR while the Italian Serie A and German Bundesliga have decided to continue the use of VAR. On the other hand, the English Premier League has opted not to use it for the upcoming 2018-2019 season and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has shown no interest in introducing VAR to the Champions League.
To ensure that VAR can become a unanimous choice of football tech, the technology providers have their work cut out. There are some lingering challenges that the application must yet overcome such as delays and communication channels. Another question that is raising concern is the limitation of use of VAR. Once these challenges are addressed, the football community will, as a whole, welcome VAR onto the pitch.