Over a football game, referees must quickly make around 130 decisions in order to analyse what has happened. The risk of making mistakes is high, and this can have a direct impact on the final result of any game. Some factors such as the flash-lag effect—the difficulty of perceiving the location of an object while something else is occurring at the same time—the background noise, the players’ comments on the game events or fatigue can lead referees to make poor decisions. The introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system into the Laws of the Game by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 2018, aims to help referees with their decision-making. The VAR system was incorporated in the big European leagues during the 2017-18 season in Italy and Germany but during the 2018-19 season in Spain, France, and England. However, it was first tested in the 2012-13 Dutch league season.
At first, the philosophy of the VAR technology is pretty clear—minimal interference, maximum benefit. VAR must help evaluate the main referee’s decision-making through video footage, which shows three situations such as goals, penalties, and red card incidents in which there is confusion over which player should be punished. Once the VAR team has checked the video recording, the main referee is informed via earphones and takes the final decision. However, despite these apparent advantages, there exists much intense debate about the negative consequences of this technology. Among them are interruptions in playing time due to pauses, high economic cost of implementation or referees’ loss of authority over the players on the field.
What effect has VAR brought about in the game? Has it changed the course of the game a lot or a little? Several studies have been published and have made it possible to assess the VAR system impact on Serie A from Italy, La Liga from Spain, the Bundesliga from Germany, and the SuperLeague from China.1,2,3 The results from all of these studies suggest the same aspects:
- The number of fouls and red cards decreased after the implementation of the VAR system.
- The total playing time, as well as that of the first and second half, increased between 30-120 seconds on average. The game lasts longer, especially in the second half.
- The effective playing time (playing time without interruptions) slightly decreased, especially when there were more VAR interventions.
- The VAR could make a referee change their decision once every 3.29 games.4
- During the 2018-19 season, in La Liga, VAR interfered in 27% of its games, or in other words, in 1 out of 4 games. Typically, it should only interfere once.
- According to the data provided by FIFA, during the 2018 World Cup, referees’ sensible decisions increased from 95% to 99.32% thanks to VAR.5
- Referees’ bias towards those teams which are better ranked is still a fact—extra time in games is higher when the best teams are losing than when the score is in their favour.
- The distance covered by players above 21 km/h has not been altered. However, the distance covered by teams did decrease very slightly when comparing games in which VAR did not interfere; it did but only once or more than twice: 108,916 m vs 107,916 m vs 106,977 m.
In short, it seems that the implementation of VAR in high-level football has not significantly changed the game. It may be necessary to review and improve criteria as well as the use of this technology to soften even more its impact on what occurs on the field.
1 Errekagorri, I., Castellano, I., Echeazarra, I., & Lago-Peñas, C. (2020): The effects of the Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) on the playing time, technicaltactical and physical performance in elite soccer, International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport. https://doi.org/10.1080/24748668.2020.1788350
2 Han, B., Chen, Q., Lago-Peñas, C., Wang, C., & Liu, T. (2020). The influence of the video assistant referee on the Chinese Super League. International Journal of Sport Science & Coaching. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747954120938984.
3 Lago-Peñas, C., Rey, E., & Kalén, A. (2019). How does Video Assistant Referee (VAR) modify the game in elite soccer? International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, 19(4), 646-653. https://doi.org/10.1080/24748668.2019.1646521
4 Petty, L. (2018). Analysing VAR: Could VAR affect home advantage? 321 https://www.pinnacle.com/en/betting-articles/Soccer/var-home322 advantage/U6N27PEZMNKJU9RB
5 Paul H. (2019). ‘VAR is cleaning football’: FIFA president Gianni Infantino holds court ahead of World Cup final, www.telegraph.co.uk/world-cup/2018/07/13/var-cleaning-football-fifa-presidentgianni-infantino-holds-court/.
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