VAR, or video assistant referee, made its global soccer debut at last year’s men’s World Cup in Russia, and the impact of the replay system was tangible: A record 29 penalty kicks were awarded in the tournament, and a record 22 of them were converted. The previous mark of 18 awarded penalty kicks was broken before the end of the group stage, as referees on the pitch now had help in determining if a penalty had occurred inside the box. Plus, 14 calls by referees were changed or overruled by VAR during the group stage.
Despite some grumbling about the in-game delays it created, FIFA dubbed the replay system a success, saying that with VAR’s help on-field referees had a 99.3 percent success rate in terms of making correct calls, up from the previous rate of 95 percent. Only four players received direct red cards, the fewest since 1978, and VAR was credited with ensuring that players remained on their best behavior.
The VAR system is once again in place for the Women’s World Cup, currently taking place in France. A quick refresher:
— The on-field referee now has help from the VAR team, consisting of the video assistant referee and two assistants who are holed up in a centralized location for each tournament, in this case Paris. The VAR team comprises FIFA-designated match officials who also may work as on-field referees. They have all available camera angles at their disposal and are connected to the on-field referee via a radio communication system.
— If the VAR team notices a play that is worth a review, it communicates that fact to the on-field official, who stops play and heads to a replay monitor located near the field.
— Only four areas are covered by VAR: goals, and the incidents leading up to goals (offsides, ball out of play); penalties (whether they took place inside the penalty area, and whether the on-field referee erred in awarding a penalty); incidents leading to a direct red card; and cases of mistaken identity.
— The final decision on any play involving VAR is made by the on-field official. The VAR team can only assist the on-field official in making his/her final decision.
Perhaps most infamously at this World Cup, VAR popped up in the Group D opener between England and Scotland when England’s Fran Kirby sent in a cross that hit Nicola Docherty’s outstretched arm in the box. The foul went uncalled by referee Jana Adamkova but was flagged by the VAR official, who called for a replay review. Adamkova awarded England the penalty kick, which Nikita Parris converted for the game’s first goal.
There were protests from some corners about VAR itself after that play, but the main thrust of the contention is more about the combination of VAR and the recent clarification of the handball rule, which gives the referee little leeway if the ball hits a player’s arm, even accidentally. Under the amended rule, handballs are supposed to be called not only for deliberate acts, as was the case previously, but if the ball hits a player’s arm or hand that “has made their body unnaturally bigger.” In other words, when arms or hands are not at a player’s side or behind their backs.
Now that referees are allowed to check replays, it could lead to an increase in handball calls. It could also lead to more cynical attempts by players to direct kicks toward an opponent’s arms if they happen to be at all outstretched.
“We had a VAR meeting with FIFA referees before the game,” Kirby told the Guardian. “The referees were very clear that if your arms are not in a natural position or near your body then a penalty is going to be given. But I would like to think I’m not going to drive down the line then kick the ball against an opponent’s hand or arm because I want to get a penalty.
“I’d like to think that’s how others feel in that moment but possibly it could happen. I don’t feel that in that split second you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to cross it and hit her hand.’ I’m thinking, ‘[England teammate] Lucy Bronze is in the box and I want it to hit her head.’ My cross was intended to get on the head of one of our players so she might score.”
Said Scotland striker Erin Cuthbert: “We had a good start and I think we’re really unlucky with the VAR decision — it’s knocked the wind out of our sails. But if you put your hands up, you always leave yourself with a risk. These things happen in football.”
VAR also erased a goal by France’s Griedge Mbock Bathy in the tournament’s opening match against South Korea, with replay showing she was ever-so-slightly offside when she volleyed her shot into the net.
It’s just something everyone is going to have to get used to.
“We’re getting introduced to VAR for the first time in the World Cup, which is kind of crazy,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said last week. “To be introduced to something brand new on the biggest stage in the biggest games of your life. But the overall sentiment that we were talking about was we’re just going to have to be able to deal with it. If something goes wrong, just move on to the next thing.”
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