FIFA video assistant referees and the FIFA Confederations Cup

After trials at U-20 level, elements of FIFA’s Play Fair! Initiative are now making a big splash at senior international level in the FIFA Confederations Cup, in particular with the use of ‘Video Assistant Referees’ (VARs) which represent just one of the major changes to the game’s rules being debated and tested.

The IFAB and FIFA formally launching the new play fair! Initiative last Thursday as part of “a strategy focussing on improving fairness and the image of the game.”

According to the IFAB, the initiative is aimed at looking at the game’s negative aspects and focus on “what football wants” with the aim of developing the laws of the game “as a key tool to increase fairness, integrity, universality, inclusion and, with the controlled use of technology, [to] benefit the game worldwide at all levels.”

According to IFAB Secretary, Lukas Brud, “play fair!  is a major milestone – for football. With the huge support of FIFA, the confederations and national football associations, we are creating an opportunity to address football’s on-field issues and negativities.”

The play fair! initiative is leading to a major revision of the Laws of the Game between 2016 and 2017, overseen by David Elleray, IFAB’s Technical Director who says, “so far, the support for play fair! within the football community has been very positive – referees, players, coaches and fans all agree that improving player behaviour and respect for all participants (and especially match officials), increasing playing time and the game’s fairness and attractiveness must be football’s main priority.”

The major elements being implemented at the FIFA Confederations Cup were introduced two days prior to the tournament kick off by Marco van Basten FIFA’s Chief Technical Development Officer and Massimo Busacca FIFA Head of Refereeing at a press conference in St Petersburg.

“The ‘play fair!’ iniative is a plan for football,” said Van Basten. “This strategy aims to promote fairness and integrity, ensure the game is accessible to everyone and optimise the use of technology. Since its approval, FIFA and The IFAB have elaborated on the first stage of discussions and trials, which focus on improving player behaviour and increasing respect, increasing playing time and increasing fairness and keeping the game attractive.”

Van Basten went on to outline in detail what measures will be taken towards achieving these aims. The mobbing, or surrounding, of match officials is something that FIFA – and football – wants to eliminate from the game, and the first steps in that direction will be taken during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. Furthermore, referees have been instructed to be more accurate in adding time for major delays such as injuries and substitutions, and to prevent more time-wasting.

Busacca spoke on the trialling of Video Assistant Referees (VARs), which are also planned to be implemented at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and which have been the main topic of conversation for those watching the opening fixtures of the Confederations Cup this weekend.

Busacca praised the VAR system saying, “Having now gone through two tournaments in which VARs were involved, I think we can already see that they really can help. Our objective is to eliminate clear mistakes – the mistakes that people, years later, still remember. Football asked for this, and we are trying to understand the ways technology can help us with some difficult decisions.

“VAR is a new tool and, like all new tools, it takes time to learn and to implement. But 12 decisions were changed at the U-20 World Cup due to VAR input, and some – had they not been changed – could have changed the competition, eliminating one team rather than another. At FIFA, we want fair play and correct decisions.”

The IFAB is seeking to encourage a debate around rule changes, and more rigorous enforcement of existing rules saying that “The underlying philosophy of ‘PLAY FAIR!’ is a ‘call to the conscience’ of everyone involved in football, from individual players, coaches, referees, administrators and fans through to competition organisers and governing bodies. It is a call for a ‘PLAY FAIR!’ attitude and approach to underpin every action and every decision taken in relation to the Laws of the Game and how they are applied at all levels. Fundamental to ‘PLAY FAIR!’ is respect for the Laws, match officials, other participants and the game itself.”

Plans which are being discussed include allowing a player to pass to themselves at freekicks, corner and goalkicks, a stadium clock linked to the referees watch, blowing for half time and full time only when the ball is out of play, changing the order of penalty kicks in a shootout and changing form the traditional 90 minute format to a 60 minutes of actual (effective) play.

Apart from VAR, the Confederations Cup is also seeing the trial of a proposal that only captains be allowed to talk to referees as part of the initiative to prevent referees being mobbed.

It is clear to everyone who watched this weekend’s games that VAR is not going to clear up all controversies (Russia were denied a clear penalty despite the VAR system being in place), that it is going to lead to a large proportion of goals being disallowed due to minor infringements by attacking players which would usually be missed and that it is going to have a major effect on the emotional experience of a goal as celebrations often prove premature or need to be delayed. It remains to be seen if spectators decide that the elimination of many refereeing errors and improvements in “behaviour” of players is really worth the diminution in enjoyment of the game and the gulf that is opening up between elite and grassroots versions of the game that the new system seems to entail.

FIFA video assistant referees and the FIFA Confederations Cup

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