After making its debut in the last World Cup, the Video Assistant Referee technology returned in the FIFA World Cup 2022 to mixed reception. During the World Cup in Russia, the use of VAR resulted in a whopping 29 penalties – the highest in the history of the tournament. This statistic enabled FIFA to declare the introduction of VAR technology a huge success.
Despite its utility, inconsistent and selective application of VAR is enraging both fans and players. Let’s take a look at how VAR has performed in the tournament so far, and the controversies it has already managed to generate:
What is VAR Technology?
The VAR works by constantly tracking the players’ actions on the ground through the use of video cameras set up around the stadium. While the immediate decision of any tackle or obstruction falls to the on-field referee, the Video Assistant Referee and his assistants also review every decision. If the VAR agrees with the on-field referee’s decision, it is immediately notified to the on-field referee – a silent check.
If the VAR is considering a thorough review of the decision, he/she usually communicates that the decision is under review, and the play is stopped until a decision is made. The VAR can either decide to overturn the on-field referee’s decision or ask him/her to review it on a screen usually present by the field. In all cases, the on-field referee makes the final decision, and the VAR’s review is only a recommendation.
The VAR system has become an integral part of tournaments and leagues across the globe after it was officially written into the Laws of the Game in 2018. It has proved to be a valuable resource for on-field referees to make tough decisions, and at the same time brought more discipline to the game as breaking the rules is unlikely to go noticed with constant surveillance.
To further the use of technology to enforce the rules of the game, FIFA has also introduced a semi-automated offside technology that makes offside decisions. Whenever a ball is received by a player presumed to be offside, officials accompanying the Video Assistant Referee will be alerted and will be presented with an animation that checks if the player was offside.
This technology has already made a clear impact – Lionel Messi’s Argentina were disallowed three goals for being offside and were caught offside seven times during the game.
Why Is It Controversial?
Despite FIFA’s claims, the VAR has been criticised extensively by all stakeholders in the game. The main criticism stems from its inconsistent use. In Portugal’s game against Ghana on Thursday, Cristiano Ronaldo was denied a goal in the first half as the on-field referee blew the whistle for a foul, even though later replays showed that there was no major foul.
But in the same game, Portugal were awarded a penalty kick after Mohammed Salisu made a soft tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo. Even though the penalty would have stood the test of VAR, it was the lack of a check that upset fans of the game.
Meanwhile, Gareth Southgate’s England have lodged a formal complaint over the VAR technology with FIFA. Harry Maguire was denied a penalty for what England claimed was a ‘rugby tackle’ by Roozbeh Cheshmi. Iran were later awarded a penalty in extra time for a foul committed by John Stones, although the consensus is that such a small infringement did not warrant a VAR intervention.
Both the offside technology and VAR have come under fire in the game between Belgium and Canada. Tajon Buchanan was both ruled offside and was refused a penalty, while replays showed that he was neither offside nor there was potential for a VAR review.
What Needs To Be Done?
Many former referees are now calling for the conversations between the VAR and the on-field referee to be transparent and aired to the broadcasters. The decision to display animations for offside calls has been hailed, and a similar broadcast of the communication between referees will allow for more clarity on the decisions that are being made.
There is also a need to clarify the rules and situations within which the VAR would operate. For example, while England were denied a penalty kick, Argentina were awarded one the very next day for a similar tackle – showing that the VAR system is still adapting to the conditions instead of being foolproof.
While the VAR technology has avoided attracting any major criticism in the tournament so far, it could come under fire if the same continues during the knockout rounds of the World Cup, where each goal can change the outcome of the tournament.
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