The introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) was intended to remove any doubt from what otherwise might be considered to be debateable refereeing decisions, with the aim of providing improved fairness and impartiality during matches.
However, the irony here is that the use of VAR technology itself has become one of the biggest talking points at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, polarising views on whether it's actually fair or not.
We take a look at how VAR came about, what its use actually means, its impact at the World Cup so far, along with how the technology could shape the future of decision-making in football.
How Did VAR Arrive At The World Cup?
After being trialled in competitions such as the Carabao Cup and FA Cup in England, as well as in the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A, the use of VAR at the 2018 World Cup was approved in March of this year by the International Football Association Board in Zurich.
Many leading referees around the globe were already very familiar with VAR technology, having put the concept into practice during trials taking place for the last two years. The first high-profile event in which VAR was used was the 2016 Club World Cup, then at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
All the refereeing teams participating at the 2018 World Cup have had intensive training for the use of VAR, spanning the last two years and particularly since the sport's governing body announced that it would be used at the tournament, with match officials taking part in detailed seminars and practice events. These included fine-tuning the technology itself and practical application during practice matches.
Intended Use Of VAR And How It Should Work
According to official statements, the use of VAR during matches is defined by “three main incidents (plus one administrative) which are identified as game-changing”. These are detailed as follows:
1 - Goals
The role of the VAR is to assist the referee to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded. As the ball has crossed the line, play is interrupted so there is no direct impact on the game.
2 - Penalty Decisions
The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with the award or non-award of a penalty kick.
3 - Direct Red Card Incidents
The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with sending off or not sending off a player.
Administrative – Mistaken Identity
The referee cautions or sends off the wrong player, or is unsure which player should be sanctioned. The VAR will inform the referee so that the correct player can be disciplined.
To explain how VAR itself is used in these match situations, the following steps are taken:
Step 1 – When an incident occurs
The referee informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends to the referee that a decision/incident should be reviewed.
Step 2 – Review and advice by the VAR
The video footage is reviewed by the VAR, who advises the referee via headset what the video shows.
Step 3 – Decision or action is taken
The referee decides to review the video footage on the side of the field of play before taking the appropriate action/decision, or the referee accepts the information from the VAR and takes the appropriate action/decision.
This all seems fairly straightforward in principle, but how does it work in practice at the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
Throughout the tournament, there is a video assistant referee team supporting each of the 64 matches taking place, situated in a central video operations room located in Moscow.
The VAR team for each match is made up by the principal video assistant referee (VAR) and his three assistants, which are referred to as AVAR1, AVAR2 and AVAR3.
The main VAR watches the main match feed on a quad-split monitor and is responsible for communicating with the referee on the pitch.
AVAR1 focuses on the main match camera and informs the VAR about incidents being reviewed.
AVAR2 focuses exclusively on offside decisions, whilst AVAR3 is focused on the TV programme feed we see at home, evaluating incidents and providing communication between all members of the team.
Statistics from the World Cup
Perhaps the most notable Impact of VAR is the number of penalties awarded at the 2018 World Cup.
After the final Group B encounter between Iran and Portugal, in which there were two penalties awarded in that match alone and 9/2 Golden Boot favourite Cristiano Ronaldo saw one of them saved, a total of 20 penalty kicks had been awarded in the 36 games played up until that point.
Only just beyond the half-way point of the 2018 tournament fixture list, this smashes the previous record of 18 penalty kicks awarded at the 1990, 1998 and 2002 World Cups, and greatly surpasses the 13 penalties awarded during the entire 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Clearly, the introduction of VAR appears to have had a strong bearing on the highly increased number of penalties being awarded.
Up to and including the Iran-Portugal match, seven penalties were awarded with the direct intervention and assistance of VAR. This begs the question as to whether they would have been awarded, or not, without VAR being available to referees.
Reactions to use of VAR at the World Cup
When it comes to England’s fortunes at the 2018 World Cup, with the Three Lions priced at 9/1 to win the tournament, their first two Group G matches generated considerable debate regarding how effective, or not, the use of VAR has been.
During the narrow 2-1 victory against Tunisia, the North African side scored from the spot after what looked a clear-cut penalty decision, with Kyle Walker having elbowed Fakhreddine Ben Youssef inside the area.
Meanwhile, England striker Harry Kane was clearly rugby-tackled to the ground by a Tunisian defender Yassine Meriah at a corner, yet neither the referee or VAR intervened.
So how could such a deliberate foul and potential penalty decision have been missed? Well, it’s all down to interpretation from the match referee. Irrespective of what VAR sees, the referee can still make the final call.
Interestingly, former English referee David Ellary is now the technical director of the International Football Association Board, which oversees the laws of football and has played a decisive part in the implementation of VAR at the World Cup. Nevertheless, he takes a positive view that VAR has been of ‘maximum benefit’ and has contributed to a ‘fairer World Cup’ overall.
The future of VAR in football
There’s no doubt that VAR will continue to create much discussion during what remains of the World Cup, while it’s a technology that’s here to stay at elite levels of football.
Despite being trialled in the Carabao Cup and FA Cup last season in England, the 2018-19 campaign in the Premier League will not feature VAR during matches, after member clubs voted against its implementation.
Whether there will be any pressure to implement VAR in the Premier League beyond next season remains to be seen.
By contrast, VAR will continue to be used in the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A, despite there having been widely-reported teething problems with the technology during trials last season.
Meanwhile, La Liga president Javier Tebas has been highly enthusiastic about how VAR has performed at the World Cup, announcing that it will be introduced for the 2018-19 top-flight season in Spain.
One of the key aspects on the road ahead for VAR and its inevitable use throughout the highest echelons of football, and possibly into lower levels of the game too, will be clarity of education regarding how the system works.
The biggest causes for confusion amongst players at the World Cup has often been to question when VAR is actually used. Whatever side of the fence we may be on regarding how VAR is used, hopefully, familiarity will bring a much better understanding of how and when the technology can prove effective during matches.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*