The use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has proven to be a hugely controversial topic since its introduction to the Premier League at the start of the 2019/20 season.
Despite proving to be a success in the FIFA World Cup in 2018, uncertainty surrounding the rules and processes of using VAR have led to confused decision-making and heated debate over its value to the game.
The Premier League was the last major domestic league to introduce the technology but in the early stages of the season there were regular incidents which attracted severe criticism.
To assess its early success, ProTipster spoke to the International Football Association Board (IFAB, the body that determines the laws of the game) secretary Lukas Brud...
How satisfied have you been by the early use of VAR?
Lukas Brud: It is being used worldwide and we are very happy. The statistics prove that it was the right decision (to introduce it) because in a competition or a full league, if you have 40 clear and obvious mistakes made by referees that are decisive moments [in the match], and you can reduce that number by 37 or 38, so out of 40 only two or three remain, then that is a major achievement. This is the confirmation that we needed (that it is working).
The VAR concept is still at the beginning. We talked to other sports and everyone told us this is a 10-year project until people really understand how it works. The understanding is key, because if you understand it, you know when the referee is getting involved and what he is doing.
The communication is also key. We now have 85 countries/competition organisers wanting to, or already using VAR and we always tell them at the beginning that communication is half of the success. You can work very hard to make it work, but if you don't communicate or explain it to your local and domestic audience, you will have issues and people will be criticising it for the wrong reasons. If it is applied the way it should be, the success is very high and we are very pleased.
If one of those elements is not done as it should be, then we will help and assist the competition organisers to get better results but usually the statistics prove that VAR is being used the right way.
So, communication is key to educating fans about VAR?
LB: There will be incidents where people might say ‘what happened there? Why did VAR get involved?’. This is where the communication has to be maintained and people need to be informed. Most of the time, we have seen the protocol has been applied properly, but people cannot follow and this is where a lot of the criticism comes from - and that creates headlines.
We need to get all of those people on board and then people will appreciate the presence of VAR. If you look at some of the leagues in Europe, you will see that the communication was not so good, and the success and acceptance was not so good. Second year, the communication was better and we learned from lessons, and the acceptance was much higher and people are talking a different way about it. In the first year, people are still getting to know it but by the second year they are almost experts.
How much trial and error is involved in perfecting the VAR system and are we still at that stage?
LB: Trial and error was definitely part of the experimental stage. We cannot say that the protocol we drafted was perfect, but we did something other sports might not have done and we went to see and talk to them all (the other sports). We did fact-finding on the main challenges, on what was working well. Sharing the experience has probably been the key to success, because the competition organisers were sharing information with others to help eliminate the initial problems.
The Premier League was observing the development of VAR for a long time because it is one of, if not the most important league competition in the world and the most viewed competition in the world. They didn't want to be part of the experimental phase and wanted to avoid being a guinea pig. Some others (leagues) were braver which was good for us, because we got access to some of the top leagues in the world, but that enabled us to check whether VAR was working. Now the Premier League is starting for a full season, and I know they have exchanged a lot of information with the other competitions using VAR.
You mentioned that VAR is being used in major competitions around the world - does that mean the Premier League is the last hurdle to overcome?
LB: From the top level competitions, then yes. They have taken their time to use it and wanted to see how it works and really make sure that when they introduce it, that all the experience they need in order to run it smoothly from the very beginning, all the information is available, and it is being shared between different countries.
But what about the fan experience? Is there a danger that match-going fans are being disrespected in favour of the TV audience, who will have access to more replays and will receive better communication as to what is going on with the referee and potential reviews?
LB: There are more TV viewers than the ones in the stadium, but the ones in the stadium can affect the atmosphere. If people at the ground do not understand what is going on, the atmosphere will change. We have observed a lot of matches with some initial ideas of how to communicate the process of what is going on in the moment, when the referee is either holding a finger to his ear or coming to a conclusion: what is going on?
All competitions by now where possible, they have the big screens and are producing some of feed that will be on in the stadium to make sure they really understand what is going on. There are different models to it. In the US they have somebody on the PA announcing the reasoning and what is going on. At the World Cup last year they showed the incident after it happened and explain it with the working.
The competition organisers have to decide how they will apply it for themselves.
How important will VAR be for referees and managers in the moment?
LB: It is important for the managers to see what has happened so it doesn't add further pressure to them. If the manager can see it, they stop complaining otherwise they are unaware of why the referee changed the decision. They may see it differently, but when they see it they may change their minds.
Referees report back to us that this is something they have always wanted, for various reasons. VAR says to referees if you are doing a very good job, or if you have a bad day. That bad day might result in a team winning or showing a red card or whatever - but you can have a bad day as a human being. When you look at the referee, if a referee is going to the World Cup, he has spent 15 years of very good work and good preparation and training to get to the World Cup. We had one referee who went to 2010 and his career was finished because he made a wrong decision - the referee now has the chance to be calm and concentrate on the game a bit more because he knows he has someone checking if he really makes a bad decision. Sometimes a referee will miss things, and they can’t see everything. Every single referee has said to us ‘for us, it’s great. We don’t have to be afraid of killing our careers’.
If VAR helps save referees from criticism in public, then that is important. Many people forget that referees can decide matches with wrong decisions not because they are not good - they are a very high level - but they make mistakes because they are human. They will have someone to fall back on and they love it.
There was a lot of criticism about the use of VAR at the Women’s World Cup. What did you make of that?
LB: It is still a high level, but we have to remember that we had female referees who only very recently started being trained on the use of VAR. The decision to use it at the Women’s World Cup was made very late and therefore they didn’t have the same experience as the male referees because they have other experience in the leagues that are already using it.
There were more checks in the Women's World Cup and more reviews. If people are complaining about it, there is probably nothing else to complain about. In the end, the use of VAR was good and they reversed a lot of wrong decisions. The amount (of reviews) was just higher.
Is it a reflection of who is applying the technology, rather than the system itself?
LB: It was a reflection of a lack of experience. Pierluigi Collina (the chairman of FIFA’s Referees Committee) said the Women’s World Cup cannot be taken as a reference of the success of VAR in the statistical analysis. In the men’s game we had one review every three matches. At the Women’s World Cup the amount was about five in 10, so a lot more. It was the first time they had used it and didn't have time to practise. The application of VAR depends on the people in charge.
The Verdict on VAR
VAR is clearly a work in progress, a fact which is widely acknowledged by those working closest with the technology. The general feeling within the game and from IFAB in particular, is that it is unrealistic to expect the system to be perfect straight away.
Technology has had teething problems in most sports after its introduction but results, as reported in VAR from Perfect, show that its initial successes in football far outway the problems it has created and it is largely through trial and error and greater understanding of the system that things will improve.
It looks as though VAR is here to stay, much to the relief of referees and punters alike, who will be relieved to know that some betting companies - such as Unibet - even offer you money back on bets if VAR overrules the officials so view our Premier League betting tips and make the most of these cash back offers!