No more blunders? Video assistant referees 'could change football forever'

• Ifab aims for ‘minimum interference for maximum benefit’
• David Elleray says VARs could also help in red-card matters

It is hoped that the introduction of video assistant referees (VARs) on a trial basis in next season’s FA Cup will ensure incidents such as Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal and player simulation will become a thing of the past, although the body behind its implementation has admitted there remain some grey areas that must be thoroughly tested before the system is ratified for next year’s World Cup.

Last week the Football Association announced that VARs will be utilised from the third round of the FA Cup in 2018 after successful trials that have been organised by the International Football Association Board (Ifab) – the organisation that determines the laws of the game – in several countries over the past 12 months. The system, under which video referees and an assistant will analyse “match-changing situations” from a central location or a facility at the stadium, has been designed to adjudicate only when a clear error has been made by the match referee, including goals, penalties, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity.

“The philosophy is minimum interference for maximum benefit. This is not designed for there to be 15-20 decisions per match,” said the former Premier League referee David Elleray, who is now Ifab’s technical director.

“This could change the face of football in terms of player behaviour. It’s much more difficult for them to dive or commit violent conduct. It can also be an important tool against match-fixing. There are still several grey areas but what we are aiming to do is spend 2017 to refine it and make a decision over whether this will benefit football.”

Under the new protocol, which will also be implemented in several top-flight leagues including Germany’s Bundesliga next season, match referees will still be required to make a decision based on their view of an incident. If necessary, they can then stop play for an on-field review (OFR) by signalling the outline of a television screen, but only if neither side has a good attacking possibility. OFRs will usually be reserved for “subjective” decisions such as bad tackles, with real-time speed replays used for fouls and slow-motion replays reserved for “point of contact” offences such as handballs. The referee will indicate the outcome of the review on the basis of whether the decision was clearly wrong and then restart the game with the appropriate action.

During the match the VAR – a current or former referee – and his assistant will also automatically check all potentially contentious incidents using broadcaster’s footage and have the power to alert the match referee if they perceive a major mistake has been made. In that case the match referee will receive an alert to signify that he must stop the game when appropriate to view a replay, with the final decision resting with them once more. There will be no appeal process available to coaching staff and any players who attempt to influence the official by making a TV signal will be booked.

However, it is the decision not to allow reviews of incidents such as yellow cards or corners that could be the biggest bone of contention, even if Elleray believes that a compromise was necessary to ensure the general flow of the game is not interrupted.

“We had to draw some lines to get this balance between minimum interference and maximum benefit,” he said. “If you allow one that was clearly wrongly given, then logic says for justice you have to allow a review for one that wasn’t given and should have been given. We accept it’s a bit of a flaw but it’s to say, “Actually we can deal with red but, if you start dealing with yellow, you really have to deal with all yellows.”

“This is one of the challenges we will have with this system. People will always be pushing to have more and more decisions reviewable but the more reviewable decisions you have the more it will interrupt the flow of the game. We’re not aiming to achieve perfection. We’re aiming to look at what we would call real scandals. The 10 worst decisions of my career, probably most of them could have been solved by looking at the video fairly quickly.”

As yet it is undecided whether replays will be shown in stadiums or on television, with that decision likely to rest with individual associations. Elleray believes a minimum of six to eight cameras will be required to implement the system effectively at grounds and the referee will watch the incidents in new review areas located at the side of the pitch.

“They should forget about the VAR when they are making their decisions,” Elleray said. “They should not change the way they referee. But they should know that in a way there is a comfort. If they make a complete Horlicks of it, then it will be there to save them.

“To some extent all referees live with the scars of their worst decisions on their backs. This will remove quite a lot of scars. In American Football, when a decision is made by using a video, people say they don’t tend to remember the original mistake. They remember the correct decision.”

And in an era that has seen referees become increasingly criticised, Elleray, who spent seven years on Fifa’s elite list, hopes the new system will mean that becomes a thing of the past.

“Referees are often in the spotlight because of their mistakes – if one does well, then no one mentions him,” he said. “This might take the spotlight off them. Part of our future assessment of referees will be how many of their decisions are overturned. The best referee will take some pride in having the least.”

Clement rang Riley to offer backing to under-fire referee Taylor

Paul Clement felt compelled to telephone Mike Riley after Anthony Taylor erroneously awarded a penalty against Swansea City during their win over Burnley last Saturday – to ask the head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited to tell the 38-year-old official he believes he is a “very good referee”. Clement also suggested that dishonest players are not helping officials, with the Swansea manager highlighting the way that Luis Suárez “cons the referee” to win a penalty for Barcelona in their 6-1 victory over PSG.

“I actually called Mike Riley, but it wasn’t to have a go – actually on the contrary,” Clement said, reflecting on Taylor’s decision to give Burnley a penalty after Sam Vokes handled the ball. “Maybe I would have felt differently if the result had gone against us. It’s easier to do this kind of thing when you’ve won the game and the decision that hurt you didn’t hurt you as bad as it could have.

“So I called Mike and said Anthony had spoken to me at half-time and said that he called the decision in an honest way. I said to him: ‘I don’t think you would have done it in any other way, but the fact is you got it wrong and it’s a big decision.’ So I was very disappointed. But I said to Mike: ‘I don’t believe that he did anything different to calling it honestly, and he made a mistake and we can all do that.’ I actually said: ‘I want you to tell him that I do think he’s a very good referee,’ because I think he is. I’ve come across him before, he referees in the Champions League.

“I think referees have got a thankless task sometimes because the other thing is, not all players are honest. And with the speed of the game they can fool a referee into giving a decision. I don’t think that was necessarily the case in the games that we’ve had. But I think if you look at the two penalties for Barcelona against PSG, in my opinion the one on Neymar is a penalty, Suárez cons the referee – that’s not a penalty … but the referee clearly thinks it is. He doesn’t have the help to be able to look back at that, he’s calling it in real time, so it’s very, very difficult.” Stuart James


Ed Aarons

The GuardianTramp

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