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What is VAR and will it make or break the World Cup?

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Bendy offside lines, dubious penalty decisions; questions are being asked about FIFA’s new refereeing system as it makes its World Cup debut. Here’s how it works.

“Technology itself failed,” were the words of A-League head Greg O’Rourke following the dramatic final last month.

The embarrassing admission followed a 30-second blackout of the software used by the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) in the ninth minute of the match when an offside goal was awarded to Melbourne Victory.

It not only cost the Newcastle Jets the final but alerted football’s top advisers 16,000km away in Zurich, where the FIFA HQ is, that there might be a problem.

“The A-League situation was so unfortunate,” International Football Association Board (IFAB) secretary Lukas Brud told SBS News. “I spoke to the people that are responsible ... they told me this is the first time something like this has happened in the VAR use.”

But it had previously let football fans down around the world during its two-year trial period.

In the German league in April it assisted the awarding of a penalty after players had already left the pitch for half-time.

It was also blamed for the wrong player being sent off in the Confederations Cup last year. 

The English Premier League and UEFA Champions League are yet to sign up to the technology, so why is FIFA risking it at the world’s biggest sporting spectacle?

How does VAR work?

VAR was introduced to assist referees with split-second decisions they may have missed and to help fix human error.

The VAR is actually a team of three people who sit together in front of a bank of screens showing footage from all relevant broadcast cameras and two dedicated offside cameras. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the team will be based in a video operation room in Moscow and have access to 33 different angles.

The VAR operation room in Moscow.
The VAR operation room in Moscow.
Getty Images Europe

The on-field referee can initiate a review from the VAR in one of four match-changing situations: a goal, penalty decision, direct red card and mistaken identity.

The VAR will then inform the referee of their decision but the final call is at the discretion of the referee.

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What does a Video Assistant Referee actually do?

Replays of incidents reviewed by the VAR will be shown on big screens at the World Cup after the referee has made his decision. A FIFA staff member will also inform broadcasters and commentators about the review process and its outcome so they can inform their audiences.

But is the technology, when it works, accurate?

'Highly questionable'

Former Socceroos player and SBS broadcaster Craig Foster said while he supported the A-League’s move to help pioneer the technology, his view on it has since changed.

“If we had of known that every proposed red card incident, every tackle that is highly questionable, offsides and penalty incidents [were reviewed], I am not sure anyone would have signed off on it,” he told SBS News.

Lucy Zelic and Craig Foster
Craig Foster, right, is sceptical of the new technology.
SBS Australia

“And it has fundamentally changed the flow of the game and changed the expectations of everyone around what this technology is going to deliver.”

'World Cup well prepared'

IFAB secretary, Lukas Brud, whose board oversees all VAR training for referees, admits it has had some problems “which were completely unexpected.”

“Things were tested beforehand, but all of a sudden the stadium was packed and we had a failure … something very, very unique.”

But, Mr Brud said, he was confident that incidents such as the A-League final debacle would not happen at the World Cup because FIFA has since learned from its two-year trial, which came to an end in March.

IFAB secretary Lukas Brud
IFAB secretary Lukas Brud, second from right, has backed the VAR system.
Getty Images

“I think the World Cup is very well prepared, not saying the A-League is not, but the World Cup has the benefit of learning from what happened in the last two years. They obviously have trialled with redundancies and back up plans to try and avoid any potential scenario,” he said.

“I don’t believe there will be any major incidents. I think the incidents related to technology will be minimal, if at all.”

Fan frustration

One of the main criticisms of VAR has been the review process interrupting the “flow” of the game.

In March, hundreds of Lazio fans protested outside the Italian Football Federation headquarters in Rome claiming VAR had cost their team numerous points throughout the season.

“I was watching the games today and noted how some referees spent more time in front of the screen than on the field - it's not football how it used to be,” Lazio’s coach Simone Inzaghi said following one game.

But with recent statistics showing the ball is in play for 60 minutes on average during a professional football match due to stoppages, Mr Brud said taking 60-seconds to make a correct decision isn’t a disruption.

“There were critics at the beginning that wanted the VAR system to fail and they said it’s going to interrupt the game too often,” Mr Brud said.

“But that’s not the fact … of course you will have that odd incident where something takes longer because it is a complex situation [but] we always say precision is more important than speed.

Craig Foster still isn’t convinced. And it’s not just the big games in the World Cup he thinks fans should be worried about.

“We always say ‘if it happens in the World Cup Final it will be big’ - but what happens against France for us?” he said.

“In Australia’s group, all three games may as well be a World Cup final.

“When you are a smaller country, every game is the most important game in your history and it is simply not good enough to have their fingers crossed hoping the technology doesn’t fail.”

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