The technology termed VAR is being used at the World Cup for the first time ever and has the potential to fundamentally change games. It could decide the future of the tournament, by reversing some of the most important refereeing decisions in the game.
Advocats claim that VAR will ensure that decisions are fair and that the best team wins. But even those supporters admit that the technology is still at a very early stage – with supporters and referees still apparently confused about how it should actually be used.
Despite that complexity, the technology is fundamentally simple: it is an extra referee who watches the game and advises officials on decisions. In practise, though, it might be very complicated indeed.
How does it work?
There are 13 officials who can be chosen as the video assistant referee. They will all sit in a special hub in Moscow – no matter where the game is happening – and they will do so wearing their full kit, as if they were ready to jump onto the pitch at any time.
Of those, one will be chosen for each game, and they will have a team of three assistants.
In there, they will receive a stream from inside the stadium, which is made up of the view from a whole host of cameras – including slow motion ones – which the referees can flick between.
The VAR will watch the whole of each game. If they see something wrong, they can flag it to the referee; if the referee thinks something is wrong, he can get in touch with the VAR.
Either way, the VAR is only advisory. Any decision ultimately rests with the referee, even if he has been advised the opposite way by the VAR.
What can be referred to the video referee?
In total, there are four different sorts of incident that can be reviewed:
Goals. The system can be used to check if a goal actually went in, in the obvious way. But it can also adjudicate on the lead-up to the goal, not just the ball passing into the net – if an infringement would have stopped the goal being rewarded, then VAR can stop it being awarded.
Penalties. This can go either way, being used to check whether a penalty should have been awarded and wasn’t, but also reversing the decision if a foul is given in the penalty box.
Red cards. If the referee has decided a foul has been committed, then VAR can be used to decide whether a red card should be awarded. This might be the most controversial thing that the video technology will be relied on for, for reasons we will get onto later.
Mistaken identity. Probably the vaguest but also important parts of VAR’s responsibility, this will allow the additional referees to spot if the wrong player has been disciplined. If they are, the referee will be corrected. That should stop situations like the mix-up between Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that saw the wrong player sent off during a match in 2014.