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VAR – technology and sport, a match made in heaven or hell?

by Beth Divine 4 Oct 2018

Technology has been used in rugby and cricket for some time now, but this World Cup is the first time that football has embraced the certainties offered by digital playback in real time as needed. Football is doing it differently to both of the other sports where the technology is operated by the third umpire who confirms that the referee’s decision is correct or points out where it is not right. This still allows the ultimate decision to lie with the referee who is in charge of the game, but gives him a layer of protection against faulty decisions – which do happen, not everyone can see everything that is happening on the field all the time.

Football referees use the technology in a different way in that they examine the replay themselves, confirming their decision or letting them see that they have made an error in judgement. Errors or questionable decisions are brought to the referee’s attention by the (still all-too human) VAR (Video Assistant Referee) or an AVAR (Assistant Video Assistant Referee) who is seated in front of big screens offering different perspectives of the field of play.

Whenever the decision is made that an error (which must be clear and obvious, not just speculative), the VAR can communicate with the referee via a headset. If the VAR suspects an error, but on reviewing the play sees that the referee’s call was correct, he or she does not have to communicate this to the ref, allowing play to continue – communication only occurs when it is recommended that the referee examine the footage.

There are rules surrounding the playback – it must be reviewed in real time, no slow motion unless the circumstances are extreme, and only the incident under review must be viewed. There are some exceptions to this, but they are quite rare and can only happen when a stringent set of conditions apply.

The big drawback with the use of technology in this way is the same one that the technology is being employed to negate. Humans. Humans are still required to notice when a review is required and the ref must still use his human eyes while watching the replay. This means that errors can be made – poor or malicious play can be missed, innocent actions can be misinterpreted, and referees might show their bias (whether deliberately or unconsciously) towards players and teams that they personally support. This has already been seen in the 2018 World Cup where some bad decisions were not alleviated by use of the VAR technology.

Perhaps in the future, the technology will be perfected and human emotions will not be affronted by the idea that machinery might operate more effectively than flesh and bone. Maybe then the beautiful game will become even more so.