The 2018 World Cup will be the first major international football tournament to use the new video refereeing system VAR.
‘VAR’ may be familiar to some fans after it was trialled in England during the FA Cup this season, but there is still plenty of confusion about how the system actually works and what decisions video referees can decide on.
Find out more about how VAR will be used during Russia 2018 below, including expert guidance from former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg, and why ex-England players including Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard are still sceptical…
What does VAR stand for?
Video Assistant Referee. The system is football’s first attempt at using video technology to aid in refereeing decisions. The idea is to help the on-field official make the right call – and stop them making a howler that could cost a side the game.
The system was trialled in the FA Cup last season, but this will be the first time the technology has been used at a World Cup.
Former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg, who officiated at the Euro 2016 final, expects that the VAR at the World Cup will be much better than the early trials in England.
“After what happened in the early rounds of the FA Cup, there’s a lot of negativity in England around VAR,” he says. “But Fifa have been doing a lot over the past two years, putting training in place to make sure that it’s a success.”
How does VAR work?
Four referees sit in a video operation room in Moscow (below) and follow the action live from the stadium on a series of TV screens. Thirty-three different cameras plus two dedicated offside cameras theoretically give them all the angles they could ever need. The referee can communicate directly with the VAR team via their radio microphone.
When can VAR be used at the World Cup?
VAR can only be used in four “match-changing situations”: goals, penalty decisions, red cards and cases of mistaken identity.
This is very important to remember says Clattenburg: “The mistakes using VAR in England were that they were reviewing too many debatable decisions. That’s not what the video assistant referees are for. VAR was brought in to stop the scandalous decisions where everybody in football goes, ‘That’s not correct’.”
If the ref makes a clear mistake in any of the four situations above, the VAR team will advise the ref to check the call – you should see the ref point to his earpiece to show that he’s receiving advice.
If the ref draws a square in the air with his hands, that means the video team are reviewing the incident. The on-field ref can also watch the same replays as the VAR team on a pitch-side screen.
VAR can only advise on a decision: it’s up to the official on the pitch to make the final call.
Goals This includes any offences made in the play building up to a goal. Crucially this includes offside decisions. Referee Clattenburg explains that while in the past the decision would have been debatable, with some wanting to give the “benefit of the doubt” to the attacking player, now with technology there is no wriggle room.
“It’s very similar to ball over the line. If the ball is a millimetre over the line, it’s a goal. If a player is a millimetre offside then he’s offside,” he says. “It’s a matter of fact.”
The VAR team will superimpose a – hopefully straight – line over the footage in order to work out whether a player is offside or not.
Penalty decisions Any foul in the box will be checked to confirm whether it is a penalty. If the decision is debatable, the VAR team can advise the referee to check the replays on his own screen. Again, the ref’s decision is final.
Red cards If a referee has made a decision on a foul but it appears that the offence could be more serious, then the VAR team could ask the ref to check the call. Similarly, the video referee could get in touch with the referee if they think a red card is unduly harsh, as can be seen in the video below.
Even more intriguingly, if the ref has missed a violent play incident off the ball that should result in a straight red, then the VAR can pick up on that and let the ref know, even as play is continuing. Clattenburg says theoretically a player could even be given a red card at half time for an incident earlier in the half.
“If a player commits a violent act and it gets picked up on the TV cameras, then VAR will get to know about it and it will be dealt with,” says Clattenburg.
“If somebody does something stupid like hitting someone off the ball, then they know that will be dealt with. That’s why Gareth Southgate has warned his players to be ‘squeaky clean’, because he knows that if they do something stupid, VAR will punish them.”
Mistaken identity Remember the time English referee Graham Poll booked the same player three times in one match? VAR could step in to sort out the confusion. Similarly if the ref has penalised the wrong person, VAR will let them know they’ve made a mistake.
What are the criticisms of VAR?
It’s still a new system, so both players and fans could be confused about how it’s actually being used. Unlike rugby where you can hear the referee’s communications, in football it can be hard to tell when a decision is being reviewed.
The VAR footage is set to be shown on the big screen in the World Cup, but Clattenburg says that viewers at home being able to hear the video referee is the obvious next step in order to make things clearer.
“The video referee should be able to speak and help the people understand the decision-making process,” he says. “There shouldn’t be any hiding. It should be transparent.”
Also, different people have different ideas about exactly what is meant by a “clear mistake”. If pundits can argue for hours over whether it should have been a penalty or whether a goal was offside, will four refs in a control booth really be able to make things any clearer? Clattenburg says that the system was used too often in the trials in England on debatable decisions, and that in the World Cup he hopes the system is restricted to clear mistakes.
However, with referees under fierce spotlight at the World Cup, there is also the danger they could turn to VAR for every major call, disrupting the flow of the game and meaning even more stoppage time.
Clattenburg says that his one big concern – which can’t be fixed by better refereeing – is how the VAR system will affect players and how they celebrate a goal: “The only concern I have as a football fan is that as a player scores a goal, we don’t want him to be worrying about VAR. You need to see them celebrate, you need to see them enjoy the moment. What I’m scared of is that players will be worried about celebrating because they’re thinking about VAR.”
Is VAR ready for the World Cup?
“The technology is ready,” Clattenburg asserts. “It’s how it’s implemented that will be the key. What I will say is Fifa have spent a lot of money educating the referees; there have been courses and seminars in the build-up to the World Cup. In the past there have been maybe two meetings before the World Cup of all the referees. I understand this time there have been six.”
Other pundits that Radio Times has spoken to are not so sure. “I always loved the fact that the naked eye gives you an immediate decision and causes a debate,” says BBC pundit Rio Ferdinand. “But now we’ve got technology causing the debate. What have we gained?”
Frank Lampard agrees: “To me, VAR doesn’t bode well because it doesn’t feel ready. Referees all over the world have a slightly different interpretation of it and what it should be used for. I get that it’s intended to rule out huge errors – and, having been on the end of one [his goal against Germany at the 2010 World Cup was wrongly ruled not to have crossed the line], I agree with that. But it’s whether they’re going to use it to look at every decision. It’ll be terrible if we end up talking about VAR instead of some of the world’s greatest players.”
Clattenburg disagrees: “I’m confident that Fifa will get it right,” he says. “What they can’t get is a situation in the World Cup where everyone is talking about the refereeing decisions. I don’t mind talking about VAR, about whether it should or should not have been used. But what we can’t have is a scandal that knocks a team out of the World Cup.”