assistant-referee-in-actionOn 14 February 2017, Sports Shorts discussed the then upcoming AGM of the International Football Association Board (“IFAB”), the body that determines the rules of football.  That article focused on the issues that were up for discussion at the AGM, in particular the possible introduction of sin-bins at certain levels of the sport.

The AGM took place at Wembley on 3 March 2017 and the introduction of sin-bins was unanimously backed, together with the implementation of varying match durations in respect of disability, grassroots and youth football matches.

While the introduction of sin-bins will undoubtedly represent an intriguing change to the fundamental nature of the sport, it is not the change which has garnered the most column-inches.  That award goes to the news that the Football Association (the “FA”) intends to introduce Video Assistant Referees (“VARs”) from the third round onward of the 2017-2018 FA Cup.

A VAR is effectively an assistant referee who is present at a match and has the ability to review and replay elements of a match on a computer screen.  The VAR can then assist (or overrule) the referee in order to reach the right decision.

The use of VARs will apply to four categories of “match-changing incidents”:

  • The award of goals;
  • Penalty or no penalty;
  • Direct red cards (not for second yellow cards); and
  • Cases of mistaken identity.

The Chief Executive of the FA, Martin Glenn, confirmed that the implementation of VARs was still subject to the FA being fully prepared and ready”.  Glenn also noted that the VAR system was being subjected to ongoing testing in order that its implementation would lead to the minimum intervention for maximum gain.

This is surely the key point regarding the introduction of VARs: the use of the system will result in a higher number of correct decisions but will also lead to interruptions to the spectacle.  The natural pace of a football match is generally frenetic, with significant inbuilt delays in the match fairly few and far between.  The worry about the introduction of VAR technology is that it breaks up the momentum of the match and detrimentally affects the match from a spectator’s perspective.  Yet, on the other hand, when increasingly large sums are potentially on the line at the elite level of the game, it is more and more important that the decisions reached by referees are the correct ones.

Of course, as Glenn acknowledges, VARs are not going to get every decision right.  VARs will still be humans.  Even with the benefit of video technology, it is not always possible to arrive at a definitive conclusion (as can be seen from the application of video technology to try incidents in rugby).  Part of the beauty of sport is the subjective interpretation applied to it by spectators.  Fans can sit together, watch a replay of an incident from various angles and still reach different conclusions.

It will therefore be interesting to see the parameters that the FA introduces in respect of the use of VARs in the 2017/2018 FA Cup.  Will a time-limit be introduced for VAR decisions being reached?  Can a referee overrule a VAR decision?  Will the referee have the benefit of reviewing the footage seen by the VAR?  Will the VAR have to be a trained referee?

The FA (and IFAB) will no doubt have already given these questions detailed consideration. Following a series of “offline” tests, VARs were trialled by FIFA at the FIFA Club World Cup that took place in Japan in December 2016.  In that tournament, IFAB explained that:

“An additional referee (video assistant referee – VAR) will have access to video replays during the match and will either review an incident on request (by the referee) to help the referee make the best possible decision, or advise the referee proactively of an incident that he/she may have missed…

If there is a very clear incident, the VAR can advise the referee directly, i.e. tell him/her which decision needs to be taken.  If the VAR is in doubt, the referee can review the replay him/herself, on the side of the field.”

The honour of being the first referee to award a penalty following the use of video technology fell to the Hungarian official, Viktor Kassai.  30 minutes into the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup between Kashima Antlers and Atletico Nacional on 14 December 2016, Kassai was alerted by the VAR to a potential “match-changing” situation, which Kassai had missed.  Kassai then made his way over to the side-line to consult with the VAR and to re-watch the action.  Upon doing so, Kassai agreed that a penalty should in fact have been awarded following a trip on Antlers full-back Daigo Nishi which he had not seen.  The penalty was then awarded and duly scored, putting the Antlers 1-0 up.

The use of the VAR did not in that case prevent the Atletico players from vigorously remonstrating with the referee about the decision.  Clearly it is not a system impervious to fault but referees will surely hope it will function so as to support (or remedy) their decisions and, with time, that its use will result in fewer confrontations with players.  The relationship between player and official is something that football’s detractors regularly use as an example of the sport’s deficiencies, particularly pointing to the bad example that is set by players to the game’s young fans.  It is hoped that the introduction of the VAR system will be a step on the path towards a more respectful relationship between player and referee.

Other interesting developments

The IFAB AGM also involved a discussion of various other initiatives.  For example, it was agreed that:

  • Return substitutions would be allowed for youth, grassroots and disability football;
  • An electronic communication system would be used in the technical area to aid player welfare and safety (thereby acknowledging the importance of technology in assessing potential injuries with the help of medical data and video material);
  • Yellow cards will be removed for penalties awarded for “stopping a promising attack” in circumstances where the offence was an attempt to play the ball;
  • The order of kicks being taken in a penalty shootout should be changed to reflect the order in which a tennis player serves in a tennis tie-break (i.e. following the pattern ABBAABBAAB).

These are all areas in which proposals for change are in their early stages.  While there may be some perceived merit behind each of these additional proposals, there has not been the same clamour for them in the same way as there has been for the introduction of VARs.  Whether the changes are introduced, welcomed and embraced remains to be seen.

While the introduction of VARs is in principle welcomed, it is hoped that the rules of the game do not become the subject of regular tinkering, simply for the sake of change.  There have been important changes to the game over the years which have markedly improved the sport (such as the various changes to the offside laws).  Yet IFAB should also remember that the fundamental appeal of the Beautiful Game has remained unchanged for over a century and shows no sign of going anywhere soon.  Departing too far from the sport’s roots may prove inadvisable.