PARIS — After a surprisingly uneventful rollout of video-assistant referees to review key officiating decisions at last summer’s men’s World Cup in Russia — the first time VAR was used on the sport’s biggest stage — things haven’t gone as smoothly at the women’s event this summer in France.
But in a briefing to reporters here Wednesday, FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, defended the use of the system, saying that any controversy stemming from the use of VAR at the tournament was the result of its natural evolution and increased use rather than because of any slew of incorrect calls. Here are the big takeaways.
VAR is being used more often at France 2019 than it was in Russia last year
What’s not in dispute is that plays are being reviewed far more frequently this summer. According to FIFA, there has been one VAR check every 1.5 games in France, compared with one every 3.2 matches in Russia, or more than twice as much.
Yet Kari Seitz, FIFA's senior manager of refereeing and the only referee, men’s or women’s, to have worked games in four World Cups and four Olympics, said that VAR is being used slightly less at this Women’s World Cup than at the ongoing Asian Cup or Copa America, the South American championship.
“This is not something that’s only happening at the World Cup,” Seitz said. “This tournament is in line with the other tournaments that are current. It is not a matter of this group of referees not being capable.”
There’s a reason VAR is trying to keep goalkeepers honest
One of the main complaints at the Women’s World Cup has been that VAR is overturning decisions that, in the past, were so close that they wouldn’t have been flagged. In particular, there were several instances in the group stage where penalties were retaken after video review showed that the goalkeepers had come slightly off their lines.
Legendary Italian ref Pierluigi Collina, now the chairman of FIFA’s refereeing committee, argued that those infractions had to be reviewed by VAR — especially after a recent change to a longstanding rule that lets keepers keep just one, and not two, feet on the paint.
After consulting with players and coaches, “we acknowledged that saving a penalty by keeping the two feet on the goal like until the taker kicks the ball makes the goalkeeper’s job almost impossible,” Collina said. As a result, the rule was rarely enforced. Now, he argued, it has to be.
“You cannot ignore it. If you have a tool that allows you to check, you check,” he said, noting that if the referee hadn’t ordered a do-over of an Argentine spot-kick late in a group stage match when the Scottish backstop was a few blades of grass in front of the line, it would’ve knocked another team out of the competition. “Nigeria went through, he said. “Only because that penalty kick was retaken.”
The black-and-white calls have all been correct
Soccer can be cruel. Cameroon had a goal snuffed out in the round of 16 against England because a player’s foot was a hair offside. Japan outplayed the Netherlands but lost on a controversial penalty call. It’s human to feel sympathy for both teams, but that doesn’t change the fact that VAR did its job.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s two centimeters or 20 meters — there is not a small or a big offside,” Collina said. “There is offside.”
As for the call against Japan, VAR’s replays — which were not shown on the world television feed — clearly proved that Saki Kumagai’s arm was extended from her body and likely saved a goal.
Does VAR negatively impact game flow or the spectacular experience?
Some fans have lamented the length of certain VAR reviews, which Collina acknowledged.
“It’s a matter of time versus accuracy,” he said. “We are trying to do things very quick. But sometimes you need to check more things ... we cannot say we were wrong because we wanted to be fast.”
As for the viewer experience, that’s a balancing act, too.
“Can VAR be used too much? Football has wanted us to be more accurate,” Seitz said, pointing out that the only calls that can be reviewed are goals, direct red cards, penalties and cases of mistaken identity.
“There’s a lot at stake in football. A lot of money, a lot on the line for these players. How many years have we been bemoaning mistakes in football. We want to be accurate. We have to think about where is the line for us.”
Even with VAR, there is still a margin for error
What exactly constitutes a foul, for instance, is still up for debate. Same goes for yellow cards and other subjective calls.
“We try to get our referees on a consistent interpretation, but still there can be different interpretation,” Collina said. “VAR doesn’t offer a final word always. Football is not a matter of facts only.”
“Refereeing remains the same, but with a parachute, with the opportunity to correct those big mistakes or, in this case, the things that the video shows us,” Seitz added.
“The VAR is just the support behind us.”
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