Jara’s elbow shows video referees need practice to end controversies | Simon Burnton

Officials say poor call in Confederations Cup final was part of a learning curve and the more VAR is used the fewer mistakes will be made

Fifteen months have now passed since the International Football Association Board, the body in charge of the laws of football, announced the start of a two-year period in which, by the use of experimentation both in public and in private, in competitions both high-profile and obscure, it would attempt to determine if “the implementation of video assistant referees improves the game”.

During the three-minute delay to Sunday’s Confederations Cup final in which the Serbian referee, Milorad Mazic, watched replays and consulted with his assistants and the two VARs (there is also, just in case, an assistant video assistant referee) before deciding only to caution Chile’s Gonzalo Jara for an apparently deliberate elbow to the jaw of Germany’s Timo Werner, the answer seemed both obvious and negative.

It was a fitting coda to a tournament that had been littered with VAR‑shaped controversy. Despite that the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, had declared the innovation a success, announcing that “video assistant refereeing is the future of modern football”. Their use in the World Cup finals next year is considered inevitable, even if it remains unconfirmed.

Last month Massimo Busacca, Fifa’s head of refereeing, said of VARs that the “objective is to eliminate clear mistakes – the mistakes that people, years later, still remember”. These are early days, but that goal remains distant. On Sunday night the former England full-back Lee Dixon declared on ITV that “if [the system] goes into the World Cup now, like that, I think it’s going to be a farce”.

The Confederations Cup was the second major international competition this summer to use VARs. They also had an impact on the Under-20 World Cup final, in which the decision to award Venezuela a penalty was referred for confirmation. Though it was not overturned this involved a significant delay, at the end of which Adalberto Peñaranda missed from the spot; England went on to win 1-0.

“I think what we saw in Russia really was just people getting used to using the system,” says David Elleray, the former Premier League referee who is now technical director of the IFAB. “It is not going to solve those grey-area decisions which will always be debated, and it’s never been intended that it should do that.”

To illustrate how rapidly the system is developing, the IFAB’s guide to the use of VARs, first published last March, has already been updated and rewritten seven times.

“If you put it into context we are in the very early stages of testing something which football has never used before and which isn’t simple,” Elleray says. “What the Confederations Cup has demonstrated is that it isn’t easy to apply and there will be many decisions which are debatable. In time everybody involved will be much more used to the system. I think some of the areas which weren’t as good as they might have been in Russia this time will be eliminated because people will become more used to it. We can improve simply by practising and using it much more.”

Referees will certainly have plenty of opportunities to practise. Australia, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Portugal and the US are among the countries who have committed to the use of VARs in the coming season, while in England they will be used in some FA Cup matches from the third round onwards, and in the EFL Cup semi-finals. Last season every Premier League referee received training and participated in non-live trials, in which they monitored games as they would if they were a working VAR but had no contact with the on-field official.

At the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea the VARs received considerably less attention than they did in Russia. In all they reviewed only 15 decisions in 52 matches, of which 12 were changed as a result. At its end Bjorn Kuippers, who took charge of the final, concluded that he was “really, really happy” with the experience, and that referees’ performances would rapidly improve. “You have to learn to ride a bicycle, you have to learn to play football and you also have to learn how and when to use VAR,” he said.

To assist with that video footage of every incident worldwide that VARs assist with, along with other data, is being sent to a research team in the department of kinesiology at the University of Leuven in Belgium. The same department’s previous work includes research, published last week, into the impact of different replay speeds on the decision-making process of referees when using video footage. As well as providing the IFAB with in-depth reports, footage of best and bad practice will be put online to help with referee training.

Elleray expects the so far sluggish decision-making process will speed up considerably over time and anticipates the potential emergence of specialist, professional VAR officials. “Accuracy is more important than speed but I also think we need to put the time in context,” he says. “Often the decisions which are reviewed – goals, penalties and potential red-card offences – result in delays anyway. We have to be careful not to see the time taken for a review as extra time. Some of that time will have been taken anyway.”

The Confederations Cup controversies have served to intensify, perhaps unfairly, the attention being heaped upon a technology in its infancy. A beaming Infantino declared it “a milestone tournament” but for now it appears more of a millstone. Patience will clearly be required.

“We are aware we can improve,” said Pierluigi Collina, chairman of Fifa’s referees’ committee, on the eve of the final, “but it would be very surprising after so few matches if it was perfect.”


Simon Burnton

The GuardianTramp

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