Refereeing at the World Cup: is the VAR making it any better?

After its introduction at the Confederations Cup last year, the VAR is one of this World Cup’s undisputed stars. Has the new system really been as beneficial as it was intended?

I remember the aftermath of Germany’s 2010 Round of 16 meeting against England vividly. For many, Frank Lampard’s ghost goal was the last straw. It seemed like only Jorge Larrionda missed what was a blatant goal. And sure enough, after years of dismissing pleas for the introduction of technology like a Russian monarch would do a peasant, Sepp Blatter was forced to acknowledge the necessity to give referees some help. In 2014, after two years of testing, FIFA introduced goal-line technology. Blatter stood firm: that was that.

The VAR eventually prevailed over the moaning of the so-called purists. Indeed, its path to this World Cup has been as bumpy as it has been treacherous. Trials in several competitions at club and international level have presented mixed results. Critics have directed all sorts of complaints. It interrupts the game. It takes too long. Referees become reliant on it.

And yet, here we are.

Conditional help

The IFAB established clear rules to determine what sort of situations can be reviewed by the VAR. In order to prevent the VAR from essentially being a comfort blanket for referees and indeed destroying the flow of the came, it can only be invoked in four cases:

  • Penalty reviews;
  • Red-card offences;
  • Goal reviews;
  • Mistaken identity.

So far, so good. This has been the basis of the VAR since its inception and introduction in competitions across the globe. Additionally, invoking the VAR is solely at the discretion of the referee. The assistants in the VAR room can suggest a review, but if the main official decides they are confident with a decision, there is nothing doing.

The numbers

The VAR brought one big record with it. The penalty awarded to Portugal against Iran was the 19th of the tournament, breaking the record for most spot-kicks in a World Cup ever. Mind you, this was only the third matchday of Group B. Indeed, penalty revisions have taken a front seat in VAR world, both ways. Referees have awarded penalties they didn’t notice and also reverted those they thought were fouls but weren’t. Notable examples include Dávinson Sánchez’s superb tackle against Senegal, which the referee interpreted to be a foul. The replay showed Sánchez got the ball and the decision was rightly corrected.

The thing about this system is that the assistants in the VAR room are continuously checking replays, even if they are not saying anything to the referee. FIFA will surely release the data for the entire tournament after it ends, but it did treat us to the group stage data. According to that, the VAR reviewed 335 incidents in 48 games, roughly equating to 6.9/game. From those 335 reviews, only 17 actual on-pitch VAR moments followed.

Flowus interruptus?

When the Bundesliga adopted the VAR, it started off as a rocky ride. Many incidents took ages to be reviewed. Referees hesitated between taking their assistants’ word for good, or actually going to the screen to see for themselves. As a result, naysayers felt validated in their claim that the VAR disrupts the normal flow of football. I was on the fence about this, and preferred believing that the system involved a learning curve for everyone involved. Especially the referees. Efficiency would come from repetition and not out of nowhere.

Sure enough, the World Cup saw the VAR fly along. How do I know? Well, the nuts at FiveThirtyEight timed every single stoppage in the first 32 games of the tournament. What they came up with is amazing.

On average, VAR reviews took half a minute per game. By comparison, free kicks took almost eleven. The system, although far from perfect, has been streamlined and made simpler. There is no evidence that it takes too much time from the actual playing of the ball. All the other things already do that.

The higher purpose

The arguments against the VAR never really touched on the reason it exists. It is there to better inform referees and validate or overturn match-changing decisions. It also made sense on a purely logical level: why force referees to be the only people in the entire world that didn’t benefit from the myriad cameras and angles every play is observed from? Such justice, for both teams and referees, was long overdue. Instead, critics moaned about playing time and the essence of football. We already debunked the first myth, and I’m sure the people that started to play this game in the 19th century would see its current form as unrecognisable.

The VAR has, indeed, made refereeing better. I am sure that referees feel relieved knowing that they have it at their disposal. And while it will never eliminate human error, inasmuch as humans are still involved, it does a hell of a job of limiting it. I would even dare to say that it adds an extra bit of drama.