On 19 June 2017, FIFA declared video assistant referees (VAR) as the ‘future of football’ as the technology continues to be trialled in live footballing events, this time at the Confederations Cup in Russia. Fast forward to 26 June 2017 and, following a particularly confusing incident of mistaken identity where the match referee incorrectly awarded the Cameroon captain first a yellow card followed (after consultation with VAR) by a red card before finally sending off the correct player, FIFA’s head referee has declared that ‘…many aspects should be improved’.

In April 2017, FIFA announced that VAR would be used at the 2018 World Cup and The FA have announced their intention to use VAR from the third round onward during the Emirates FA Cup in the 2017/2018 season. With such significant international and domestic footballing assets continuing to trial the technology, Sports Shorts takes a brief look at the history of the use of VAR in football.

VAR is not a new technology per se: it involves ‘a video assistant referee having access to video replays during the match and either reviewing an incident on request by the referee, or communicating with the referee proactively about an incident that he/she may have missed’. The referee’s use of VAR is billed as aiming to achieve ‘minimum interference for maximum benefit’ and follows a three stage process:

  1. an incident occurs;
  2. information is provided by the VAR to the referee (this information is either accepted by the referee or reviewed by the referee); and
  3. a decision or action is taken by the referee.

VARs are only used in four ‘game changing’ situations: goals, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents and mistaken identity.

The use of technology in football was opposed by previous FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, who stated in 2009 that he did not believe that goal line technology should be implemented as you could not afford to stop the game’. At the same time, IFAB declared that it was ‘…of the opinion that football will remain, for the time being, a game for human beings with errors on the field of play. We will try to improve referees but you will never erase errors completely.’.

However, seven years later, IFAB had changed its mind. On 5 March 2016, in what was billed a ‘landmark’ decision, IFAB at its 130th Annual General Meeting decided:

‘With regard to video assistance for match officials, The IFAB approved in principle a detailed set of protocols for the experiments and agreed they should be conducted for a minimum of two years in order to identify the advantages, disadvantages and worst-case scenarios. The set of protocols were drawn up by The IFAB’s Technical Sub-Committee, with support from FIFA’s Technology Innovation Department, and followed discussions with the Football Advisory Panel and Technical Advisory Panel as well as football associations, leagues, other sports and technology providers. The IFAB agreed that live experiments should be implemented at the latest for the 2017/18 season.’.

Alongside the live experiments, IFAB instructed a university to ‘conduct a research study, which will focus not only on refereeing but also on the impact on the game itself, including the emotions of the stakeholders, in order to provide The IFAB with a strong basis for the decision-making process’.

Following its use in the Confederations Cup, VAR will also be trialled at India’s U-17 Cup in October 2017 and the FIFA Club World Cup in December 2017 with Hawk-Eye having been selected as the provider of the technology. The results of the almost two years of trials will be written up into a report and presented at the 132nd IFAB Annual General Meeting in February/March 2018. An immediate decision could be taken there but must be taken at latest at the 2019 Annual General Meeting.

Though the use of VAR has not been without criticism (the Cameroonian boss remarked that he ‘…didn’t understand it [the referee’s decision after consulting VAR] and I still don’t understand it now.’), FIFA appear to have implemented a thorough testing, research and evaluation process. For all the criticism the organisation has faced, it still appears that it, in conjunction with IFAB, have given VAR the best possible opportunity of alleviating football from ‘…so much nonsense; from so many wrong calls; from so many wrong winners; [and] from so many injustices’. Let’s hope that VAR is not too perfect, however. After all, who wouldn’t miss the emotion of yelling at the TV or the pitch when your team or your country are ‘robbed’ of a glorious victory?