Was VAR ready for the World Cup?

The World Cup is now well under way in Russia, providing moments of brilliance from some of football’s top names, such as Ronaldo with his late equaliser for Portugal over Spain, as well as more unknown players such as Cheryshev of Russia already scoring three goals in the tournament. However, the new video assistant refereeing system, VAR, has been a major focus of the tournament with its effectiveness constantly being re-evaluated. It has proved incredibly controversial and has been heavily criticised, despite on occasions allowing correct decisions to be made after they had been missed by the naked eye.

Antoine Griezmann made history by scoring the first ever goal awarded through VAR at the World Cup after he was brought down in France’s match against Australia. Play was not stopped instantly after the incident took place, but after it was reviewed by the VAR team the referee was asked to review it. The penalty was subsequently awarded and VAR controversy kicked off.

Up to Denmark’s game against Australia on the 21st of June there had been 11 penalties awarded already in the tournament, with the record for an entire World Cup standing at 18. This rapid increase emphasises the focus on the decisions of the referees to ensure that there is greater accuracy in their judgement. However, ultimately the decision is made by one man, the referee. This leaves the entire system open to subjectivity and yet again blows open the door to whether VAR is actually working or will there always be debate to decisions on the pitch.

A VAR penalty was awarded to Sweden against South Korea in their opening game which at first looked a fair challenge by both the crowd and the referee. However, play was stopped and the penalty awarded, with South Korea’s manager Shin Tae-yong admitting after the game that “we could say it was regrettable but he was tackled between his legs. We do agree that it was a good call.” This is a prime example of how VAR can fit nicely into the game. Through using technology and reviewing the incident it was clear Sweden deserved a penalty and were rightfully awarded one, justly changing the result of the game, despite the foul being missed by the majority of viewers.

“The blatancy of the fouls has tainted the use of VAR at the World Cup”

However, in the 39th minute of England’s game against Tunisia, the unreliability of VAR in its current state was made embarrassingly obvious. Harry Kane from a corner kick was wrestled to the ground in what can only be described as a spear tackle. Despite Sassi clearly fouling Kane the referee ignored the incident and even after a review from the VAR team there was no penalty awarded. Yet again in the 52nd minute Kane was unduly brought down from a corner and again was denied a penalty kick. The blatancy of the fouls has tainted the use of VAR at the World Cup, despite in most cases it being accurately used. The criticism the system faced after the game was then inevitable.

“I would love somebody in charge of VAR to explain why the holds on Kane in the penalty area didn’t result in fouls”

Former England striker Alan Shearer stated that “Kane wasn’t allowed to go anywhere because he was being held. I would love somebody in charge of VAR to explain why the holds on Kane in the penalty area didn’t result in fouls.” Shearer sums up the thoughts of England fans who all want an answer to why the VAR team and the referee could not correctly see the fouls against Kane, especially with a system in place that is meant to be ‘almost perfect’ according to FIFA president Infantino. The foul was blatant and demonstrates that the system is clearly far from perfect. Even the technical director of the International Football Association Board, David Elleray, stated after the game that “the incident in the first half is more blatant than in the second half. FIFA said referees would be strong on clear holding in the penalty area, so it is not clear why the VAR did not recommend an on-field review.” Clarity is exactly what VAR should be bringing to the game, rather than obscurity and anomalous decisions which cannot be answered for.

Despite this clear inconsistency, does this mean the system as a whole is a failure? I don’t believe it does, VAR has still been effective at the World Cup in examples such as the Sweden and South Korea game and Denmark versus Australia, yet FIFA need to find a way to use it consistently and ensure that inaccuracies are avoided. Despite a frustrating game for England, Kane’s extra time winner gave the three lions the win they deserved, yet the game could have ended with England taking only a point back to their training camp. This should not be the case, and referees need to decide a way of making sure issues like this are not missed or at least there is a matter of stability in the system.

The regulations for VAR state that incidents have to be ‘clear and obvious’ for the referee to give a foul or an offside decision, and if it is not the VAR team will watch the footage and inform the referee whether he needs to review it. This is again a matter of interpretation to what is deemed a foul and what is not. England was sadly on the negative end of this, yet there should be no negative end, there should only be a consistent and fair refereeing system for all teams.

“Despite being missed by the referee at the time, the guilty player can later be dealt the red card”

A major aim for the VAR system is to remove the subjectivity of referees and also reduce red card incidents, with players being more cautious knowing that their actions will be reviewed and, despite being missed by the referee at the time, the guilty player can later be dealt the red card. By observing players behaviour this seems a massive success for VAR, with referees being able to watch events repeatedly to subsequently make a better judgement, where as previously they only had their own personal viewpoint of the event.

Additionally, only one red card has been brandished so far in the cup and it seems VAR has played a key role in this. Previously off the ball incidents are often missed due to the referee following play, and players who should be sent off remain on the pitch when their absence could have significantly changed the result of the game. They may have faced retrospective action after the match but with squads like Spain, Brazil and Germany this does not matter, they can simply fill the space with another world class player and the fixture in which the incident took place is not affected as it should have been, much to the opposition’s exasperation. The new rules have allowed this to change. FIFA regulations do give referees the power, backed by VAR, to retrospectively punish players at half-time for incidents that were missed. Players have therefore looked a lot more cautious to commit heavy challenges and needless reasons to be pointed down the tunnel.

“The question is should VAR be used at such a big event if it is not completely accurate?”

VAR is definitely a working progress, there will always been a significant slice of subjectivity in reviewing incidents and pointing out exactly what is a foul and what is not. At the biggest stage in world football it is difficult to not criticise these mistakes as consistency is essential in a fair competition. The question is should VAR be used at such a big event if it is not completely accurate, or should it have been allowed a few more years in the domestic leagues to develop and become more stable? Instead the precision of VAR has shown a serious variability that can detriment key matches. There are definitely areas where VAR has been beneficial, such as the reduction in red cards, but particularly with penalty decisions, England’s game versus Tunisia identified the system needs work, particularly if a VAR slip up in the latter stages leaves the 2018 World Cup surrounded by controversy.

Tristan Simpson

Featured Image courtesy of Ben Sutherland via Flickr, no changes were made to this image. Image licence found here.

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