But will the use of new VAR technology lead to harsher referee decisions?

One piece of research thinks so…

A team from the University of Leuven in Belgium have been researching VAR technology in football. Led by Dr Jochim Spitz, these cognitive scientists discovered that seeing the VAR slow motion footage affected how the referees judged the intention of players’ actions and led to more severe penalties being issued for fouls.

Wait, what’s VAR?

Let’s get this defined first, so we all know what we’re talking about. VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee, sometimes known as goal-side technology. The Video Assistant Referee will be stationed, with three Assistant Video Assistant Referees (AVARs) in the Video Operation Room (VOR). Yes, it is starting to sound like the members of an alien civilisation, but bear with us here. The VOR will receive the feeds from all 33 different cameras through a fibre-optic network. This should avoid any ‘computer says no’ moments.

Each of the team members has their own specific role:

VAR: watches the live feed from a main camera and has a split screen situation in order to review particular incidents.

AVAR1: the second pair of eyes on the main camera feed, reports to VAR if they spot something requiring a review.

AVAR2: Focused solely on any potential or actual offside decisions.

AVAR3: Watching televised feed of the game, ‘middle man’ between the other three

VAR’s advice will be communicated to the referee by radio, the final decision is always made by the referee.

What decisions can VAR be used for?

The idea is the VAR’s advice is sought if one of four ‘game-changing’ situations occurs: mistaken identity, penalties, red cards and goals.

Why has this technology been introduced to the World Cup?

Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, said to Sky Sports: “This has been adopted and approved and we are extremely happy with that decision. It will help to have a more transparent and fairer sport which is what we want because the referee has his work cut out for him already and sometimes he can make mistakes – like any human being – and if we can help him to correct some of these mistakes, let’s do so.”

Accurate refereeing is something we can all agree on, but trials of goal side technology have found that one of the most difficult things is to let supporters know what is going on. While the VAR deliberates and discussed with the referee, the crowd in the stadium and viewers at home can be left hanging for a frustrating few minutes.

Fifa’s solution to this problem is to have one appointed member of staff responsible for explaining the situation using a touch tablet. This will then be displayed on both TV monitors in the commentary box and on the big screen in the ground.

But what about this question of VAR leading to refs making harsher judgments?

Yes, the research from Belgium. The scientists showed 60 different videos of fouls to 88 top-end referees from five different European countries. These videos were either in slow motion or real time and all were of yellow card fouls. They had two different ex-international referees decide the correct decision as yellow, red or no card situations.

The results are interesting and something to consider as we get embroiled in the World Cup. The main difference is with the use of slow motion filming. When deciding on whether a foul had been committed or not, slow motion enabled 63% accuracy, with 61% in real time videos.

But what could really make an impact is how the referees interpreted the intention of the foul. 20% of referees gave a red card to those situations watched in slow motion, with only 10% red carding using real time footage. It would seem that fouls seen in slow motion “appear to be more serious”.

As Dr Spitz explains: “Our results suggest that slow motion can increase the severity of a judgement of intention, making the difference between perceiving an action as careless (no card), reckless (yellow card) or with excessive force (red card). The finding that referees were more likely to make more severe decisions following slow-motion replays is an important consideration for developing guidelines for the implementation of VAR in football leagues worldwide.”

“This is the first time that the impact of slow-motion video on decision making has been studied in sports referees and it is timely given the current debate on video assistant refereeing, which will be used in the World Cup.”

The England Manager

Gareth Southgate has been prepping the England squad for the potential of VAR on decisions saying: “Not that we are looking to get away with anything, but if we thought we could, that’s gone. We have to be vigilant in all areas of the pitch. Whatever is [decided], there have been tackles we’ve had in recent games that would be pulled up, might have been yellow or red cards. For all our players, it’s something we have to be aware of. They recognised that’s going to come in. It’s a system everybody is still getting used to and how it’s implemented is going to be key because if you look at any corner, for example, if you go looking for infringements you could find hundreds. How that is going to be interpreted is going to be really important for the consistency in the tournament.”

Football is a game fuelled by passion, particularly when representing or supporting your country. We cannot discount the human emotions that influence refereeing decisions and this newly researched element that may need to be considered as VAR continues to develop. It seems that it’s not a question of if VAR will change the game, but how.

If you are involved in any aspect of the R&D involved in this type of technology, don’t forget to plan in your R&D Tax Credit relief. From the cameras to the radio comms and all the elements in between, it will be interesting to see what effect all this tech will have on the beautiful game during the 2018 World Cup and where it will lead us in the future.


Jamie Smith