VAR: the new referee in World Cup group matches

With the end of the group phase of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it is possible to make an initial summary of the utilisation of the video assistant referee (VAR) in Russia. Although the new technology allows the correction of some errors, it also brought some new controversies. In this article, the most important uses of the VAR during the first two weeks of the competition are highlighted and we suggest how the competition would have progressed without VAR.

by Killian Poulain and Leo Gillette

The overall goal of VAR is to reduce refereeing mistakes. It can be used during the match when the referee wants to clarify four types of refereeing decisions; checking for a penalty, a goal, a foul and to identify a player for disciplinary reasons. VAR was used during 17 matches of 48 during the group phases. It was used in order to check if a penalty was needed or not on 11 occasions and eight penalties were given following a VAR check.

Although this technology can prevent a lot of injustices during the games, it creates some new problems. The main one is the time between the relevant incident and the referee confirming his decision. In some games, the referee took a decision more than two minutes after the incident occurred. Following controversial incidents, players also now appear to protest more than before.

Spain: the winner of VAR

VAR was used during Spain’s three games and on each occasion the final decision was in their favour.

– Spain v Morocco: Spain equalised in the 90th minute. Initially, the goal was disallowed for offside, but the referee checked with VAR and realised it was onside. However, the actual mistake was a few seconds before when Isco and Carvajal played a corner on the left side of the goal, but the ball went out of play on the right side of the goal so should have been taken from the other side.This didn’t change the result for Morocco who were already out of the group, but it cost Portugal the first place of the group.

– Portugal v Spain: Following Diego Costa’s 24th minute goal to make the score 1-1, Portugal players asked the referee to check the VAR in order to review an aerial duel between Pepe and Costa a few seconds before the goal. After checking on VAR and more than a minute after the goal, the referee decided that it should stand although some thought that Costa probably deserved a card.

– Spain v Iran: On 62 minutes, Iran thought they had scored the equaliser but, after checking on VAR, the referee decided that it was an offside and disallowed it two minutes after the goal was ‘scored’. This was very debatable as it was hard to say if the scorer was behind the last defender or not.

Did VAR eliminate Germany?

– Germany v Korea Republic: In added time at the end of the game, Kim Young-Gwon ‘scored’ the goal that would put holders Germany out of the World Cup. However, the goal was disallowed for offside. The referee chose to check this with VAR and he found out that it was the German Tony Kroos, hero of the previous match against Sweden, who deflected the ball to the Korean. After this goal, German goalkeeper Neuer decided to go in attack with the rest of his team, but because of this, the Korean scored a second goal. As they needed a win to stay in the competition, a draw would not have been good enough for Germany. So no, VAR didn’t eliminate Germany – they went out due to their poor performances.

When VAR creates new controversies

VAR does not remove all the problems. Some decisions made with VAR can be contested. Sometimes on the videos, it is difficult to see the action and the referee’s decision can be controversial.

– Iran v Portugal: The referee gave two penalties with the help of VAR. The first one for Portugal after 53 minutes was missed by Cristiano Ronaldo. The second for Iran was more controversial. The referee decided to give it because of a Portuguese handball, but it appeared to be unintentional. This goal and the error mentioned in the Spain v Morocco match cost the Portugal the top finishing position in the group.
In the 83rd minute of this game, Cristiano Ronaldo seemingly attempted to strike an Iranian player. The referee checked it on VAR and decided to give him a yellow card when the more appropriate punishment appeared to be a red.

– Denmark v Australia : From a 36th minute corner, a header from Australia’s Leckie hit the arm of Poulsen. The referee initially waved play on but, few moments later, he stopped the game to check VAR, reversed his decision and awarded a penalty. The problem is that the handball didn’t seem to be deliberate to many observers..

– England v Tunisia: During this match, England players were clearly manhandled when corner kicks were taken. This became a new controversy; why is VAR used in some situations and not in some others?

– Serbia v Switzerland: German referee Felix Brych’s performance during this game was subject to an official complaint by the Serbian FA and the refereeing team failed to pick up on what looked like a clear penalty for a foul on Aleksandr Mitrovic with the game poised at 1-1. A number of other decisions also went against Serbia and the referee was sent home following Serbia’s complaint.. Clearly VAR can only do so much to prevent biased refereeing.

Better late than never

Some of the referee’s decisions take place a very long time after an incident. Often, the referee does not stop the match immediately and he decides to check only when advised by the VAR official. It can then take more than a minute to go to the screen and review the action.

– France v Australia: In the 54th minute, France’s Griezmann fell in front of the goal after a contact with Risdon. At first, the referee chose not to stop the game but, more than a minute after the action, he checked with VAR and decided to award a penalty. Griezmann then scored the first World Cup goal following the intervention of VAR. For some it wasn’t a foul and, to add to the irritation, Griezmann took the penalty three minutes after the incident.

– Peru v Denmark: In the 44th minute, Peru’s Cueva fell after a contact with Poulsen. The game continued and the referee decided to check on VAR a few seconds later. He finally decided to give a penalty to the Peruvians even if there was a controversy on this foul. As Cueva missed the penalty, maybe the long wait between the action and the penalty contributed to his failure.

– Nigeria v Iceland: In the 80th minute, Finnbogason of Iceland was knocked down by Ebuehi but the referee didn’t whistle. After a 30 seconds discussion with his assistants, he decided to check VAR and finally awarded the penalty which was missed by Sigurdsson. Again, the disadvantage was that the penalty was taken three minutes after the foul.

VAR corrects injustices:

– Brazil v Costa Rica: In the 78th minute, Neymar was faced by González in the penalty area. The Brazilian collapses to the ground following an apparent challenge by the Costa Rican defender and a penalty is given. However, the referee decided to consult VAR and the images clearly showed that Neymar despite there being no contact. The penalty decision was reversed.

– Senegal v Colombia: in the 16th minute, with Senegal needing a goal to qualify for the round of 16, Mané fell into the penalty area after contact with Colombian defender Sanchez. The referee pointed directly to the penalty point but the VAR revealed no contact so no penalty. The referee changed his decision and the game continued. Senegal went on to lose the game and were eliminated from the competition.

VAR review

If VAR had not been used*
Group A : No changes
Group B : Spain would be out of his group, Portugal would be first and Iran second.
Group C : France would have only five points. But the ranking would not have changed.
Group D : No changes
Group E : The ranking wouldn’t have changed. But Brazil and Switzerland would have the same number of points (seven).
Group F : The rankings would have changed. Mexico would be first, then it would be Sweden. Korea Republic (third) and Germany (fourth) would still be eliminated.
Group H : No changes
Group F : Senegal would be first and Colombia in second place. And Japan would be out.

So the round of 16 would have been:

France v Argentina
Uruguay v Iran
Portugal v Russia
Croatia v Denmark
Brazil v Sweden
England v Colombia
Mexico v Switzerland
Senegal v Tunisia

*To make this simulation, it is considered that :
1) A penalty given by the referee and then refused by the VAR is a goal
2) A goal cancelled with the help of the VAR is a goal
3) A penalty scored with the help of the VAR is not a goal
4) All the actions are independent (so we don’t take into account the psychological changes due to a goal being scored).

Sources : FIFA TV, YouTube, SoFoot, FIFA site

VAR: the new referee in World Cup group matches

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