What Is VAR In Soccer?

There’s no hotter topic in the whole of soccer at the moment than the use of VAR, or video assistant referees. It’s causing (sometimes heated) and extensive debate.

VAR is commonly used as a generic term referring both to the match official who carries out the reviews of contentious incidents, and to the video technology which he has at his disposal to help him reach a decision. 

VAR was introduced in elite-level soccer after it was realised that the match referee and his two assistants (who you might still hear referred to as linesmen) often could not keep up with the pace of the game sufficiently to be able to make reliable and accurate judgments on a number of issues needing interpretation under the rules of football.

By the early 21st century, the pace of many soccer games, particularly at the highest levels, had become so fast that players and spectators were regularly disputing calls made by the referee and his assistants, and this was beginning to impact on the flow of the game.

In addition, according to the English Premier League, match officials have been put under added pressure due to the proliferation of new technologies such as smartphones and instant TV replays. As the Premier League says: “Because technology lets people see immediately on TV or on their phones that mistakes have been made, why not use that technology to help what is happening on the pitch?”

Clearly, given the amount of money which is now involved in football, for its credibility, those in charge of matches at the highest national and international levels have to make the right calls as far as possible.

So as the technology for slow-motion replays became more widely used and, in time, refined to produce better-quality images, the pressure for a referee to be able to refer to a replay of an incident, with slow-motion and freeze-frame capability, eventually became so intense that the international football authorities had to sanction its use.

It’s fair to say that the incident which prompted the greatest calls for video replays to be used to help referees came in the 2009 play-off match for a place in the following year’s World Cup finals between the Republic of Ireland and France. French player Thierry Henry handled the ball in the build-up to the French team’s extra-time winning goal, but the Swedish referee failed to see the incident at the time, and the goal stood, meaning that the Irish team missed out on a place in the finals by a 2-1 aggregate score over two games.

Who Invented VAR?

No single person or entity can claim to have ‘invented’ VAR – rather, it has come about by combining a number of existing technologies with the aim of helping match officials make the most difficult decisions.

The above-mentioned pressures on the game to ensure, as far as possible, that key decisions which could affect the outcome of a game were made correctly meant that, by the 2010s, the issue of using technology in on-field decisions needed to be urgently addressed.

So a project known as ‘Refereeing 2.0’, directed by the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB), was undertaken to examine how technology could improve the process of such decision-making.

It undertook trials of a system of video reviews of refereeing decisions during the 2012-13 season of its elite league competition, the Eredivisie. Immediately, Dutch league officials petitioned the International Football Association Board, asking for the game’s rules to be changed so that wider trials could be conducted. However, it wasn’t until the 2016-17 season that a full-scale trial, using a pitchside monitor, was carried out, and resulted in the first recorded incident of a referee using video evidence to change a decision, when the match official upgraded a yellow card or booking to a red card or sending-off for a player. At this time, however, there was no link between the official monitoring the VAR system and the people in the crowd, who were left perplexed that the  match referee suddenly changed his original decision and sent the player involved from the field.

The first time VAR was used in a match in England was for an international friendly game against Germany in November 2017. Two months later, it saw its first use in a competitive English club fixture, an FA Cup tie between Brighton and Hove Albion and Crystal Palace.

The first top-level tournament which deployed VAR at every game was the finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia after FIFA, the organising body, sanctioned its use that spring, and VAR made its debut in the English Premier League at the start of the 2019-20 season.

It has now become common for top-level VAR systems to relay the pictures which the official monitoring the VAR footage is using to come to his decision inside the stadium, along with a caption giving the VAR official’s adjudication.

How Does A VAR Reach A Decision?

The system actually needs three people to operate, As well as the referee on the pitch, there is also a person at a remote location who has the job of reviewing all referrals to VAR on any given day. This person is usually another current or former match referee.

A skilled video operator produces the video footage which is used, and which can be collected from cameras at a number of strategic locations around the pitch and stadium. A VAR check involves the official watching the game remotely keeping in constant contact with the match referee through a microphone connected to an earpiece worn by the referee. Either the on-pitch referee or the VAR official can ask for a video replay to check whether an offence or a foul has been committed, or whether there is doubt about any other issue covered by the rules of the game.

Depending on which official has instigated the check, one of two things will then happen:
– the match referee will be asked to go to a video screen at the side of the pitch to view a replay of the incident. They will then review the incident, and decide whether their initial decision will stand, or whether it will be overturned.
– the match referee will refer the incident to the VAR official, and ask them to check the incident from their screen in the control room away from the stadium, and make a decision.

In either case, the final decision still rests with the referee on the pitch, although where he has made a clear error, he will be asked to overrule his initial call by the VAR.

This need for incidents to be reviewed has been one of the most conspicuous consequences of VAR to neutral fans, as the reviewing process clearly interrupts the flow of the game and takes time to complete during which spectators have no choice but to wait for a decision to be reached.

How Has VAR Evolved?

Because the technology involved is intended to help officials make decisions which involve very fine margins, it was to be expected that VAR would be used in some instances when the call would be very close.

So a decision was taken by UEFA to thicken the lines on their screens which VAR officials would use to make these calls, in effect giving more benefit of the doubt to the attacking player over decisions involving the offside rule. In its first full season of use across all senior football competitions in England, there were a number of incidents involving the offside rule, where an attacking team player was deemed to have been in an offside position. That is, at least a part of their body was in front of the last player of the defending team at the time the ball was passed to them.

Several instances soon happened of players being judged to be offside by very small margins, as a result of, for instance, part of an arm, being in front of the last defender. Statistics suggested there were 128 such marginal incidents in the Premier League’s 2020-21 season, and it is intended that thickening the lines which the video assistant referee sees when determining a tight call of offside will allow the rules to be applied a little more flexibly.

So from the 2021-22 season, the English Premier League will adopt this major change involving the thickening of the lines on the VAR official’s screen for helping them make decisions involving an offside ruling.

Also, from this time, TV viewers will no longer be shown the pictures showing the offside line, and instead will only see the VAR official deliver their verdict. This probably comes as no surprise to many soccer fans who, in a very short time, have become used to regular debates which occur when a particularly close call has, arguably, affected the outcome of a match.

What Decisions Can VAR Be Used To Judge?

FIFA has decided that issues falling into four main categories can be adjudicated using VAR, as follows:

  • Decisions over offences committed leading up to or in the scoring of a goal, or in cases of doubt as to whether a goal has been scored. Examples include when the attacking team commits an offence, the ball goes out of play, whether the ball has crossed the goal line, a player has stood in an offside position, committed a handball, or where there is a dispute over offences and encroachment during penalty kicks.
  • To adjudge whether a penalty kick has been correctly awarded, or a penalty should be awarded for an offence unseen by the referee; whether the ball was in play at the time of an offence; location of offence (i.e. whether or not it happened in the penalty area); if the referee’s decision to award a penalty was incorrect; or whether an offence took place which was not seen by the referee, or which he did not believe was an offence.
  • To decide whether an offence warrants the awarding of a straight red card for the offender. Under the official rules, this can happen when an offence has led to the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, or for serious foul play, violent conduct/biting/spitting, using offensive/insulting/abusive language or gestures. All straight red cards are subject to review.
  • When the referee has booked or sent off the wrong player.

Why Is VAR Proving So Controversial?

As we mentioned earlier, a large proportion of the decisions which an official is being asked to adjudicate on using VAR have involved whether a player was in an onside position when scoring a goal, or when they received the ball in the move leading up to a goal. Such decisions have always attracted controversy, especially as they have often been made solely by the referee when he has not been in the most advantageous position on the field for doing so.

Now though, VAR has given football fans a focus for when a decision is seen to go against ‘their’ team, and rather than making it easier for officials to correctly make a difficult decision, some have expressed the opinion that it allows the referee to avoid the responsibility for such a call, by asking for the VAR to become involved and take the matter out of his hands.

This perception that the referee is passing over such calls is not helped by the fact that the official acting as the VAR is in a remote room, often many miles from where the action is taking place.

Gianni Infantino, President of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, recently refused to accept that VAR was having a negative impact on viewing experiences. But he has suggested that steps might be taken to speed up decisions over offside calls before the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Has VAR Improved The Quality Of Soccer Refereeing?

This is clearly the $64,000 question, and ultimately the answer has to be subjective. 

It has certainly shown that referees are every bit as fallible as most football fans have ever known, but it has also shed light on just how difficult and finely-balanced some of the decisions which they are called upon to make can be. After just two full seasons of use in the English Premier League, it is certainly providing plenty of talking points for fans.

And while it cannot be expected to guarantee that every difficult call is subsequently made correctly, it is at least meant that referees now have access to the best modern technology available to help them reach their decisions.