During this World Cup we'll be hearing a lot about technology and specifically about VAR, the Video Assistant Referee. It's being used for the first time at a World Cup, although it has been tested at other FIFA tournaments.
But how did VAR come about and how will it be used at during the World Cup in Russia?
What is VAR and what does it mean?
Essentially, the Video Assistant Referee supports the work of the on-field referee and his or her assistants. They can review incidents within seconds as they are not only watching the game, but they also have access to multiple replays and different angles. As you'll hear, they don't even need to be located at the ground.
The intention of VAR is to sort out the question of “was the decision clearly wrong?” across four types of key decisions and it's these types that will be reviewed at the World Cup:
- Goal or no goal decisions (offences leading up to a goal)
- Penalty or no penalty decisions
- Direct red card decisions (not second yellow cards)
- Mistaken identity
How did VAR come about?
As recently as 2012, technology was kept out of football.
A decision that year to enable goalline technology (thanks in part to the reaction to Frank Lampard's phantom 2010 World Cup goal in Bloemfontein) saw it used at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and in the Premier League, but there was still a greater goal - to irradicate bad decisions where there was "a clear and obvious mistake".
Rules in Association Football move slowly. They are managed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) - not even FIFA, the world governing body. IFAB is an independent body that resists unnecessary changes and keeps football away from the yo-yo rule-making seen in some other sports.
But in 2016 the IFAB decided to allow experimentation with VAR looking for "clear errors in match-changing situations” and subsequently approved it for use.
Issues with VAR so far - does it work?
The intention of VAR was not to have lengthy stoppages in the game. As we've seen from some matches in the FA Cup and beyond, this hasn't been achieved so it will be interesting to see how things work at the World Cup in Russia.
Apparently, the delays have been removed while replays will always be seen on the big screen at World Cup games to remove confusion. The message is clear: VAR isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing.
"We are looking to have an incredible uniformity and consistency, but don't think that technology solves the problem 100 percent," he said. "In front of a video, you will always have a human person who is making an interpretation. It's not goalline technology with a vibration. No, it's an interpretation."
The idea behind VAR is not, as in rugby, to refer things upstairs for a decision. Instead, the intention of VAR - and the instruction given to referees at the World Cup - is to make the decision and let VAR sort things out afterwards. For close offside calls, assistant referees have been told to keep their flags down and let VAR decide.
FIFA head of refereeing Massimo Busacca has sounded a note of caution about VAR; that it isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing. "We are looking to have incredible uniformity and consistency, but don't think that technology solves the problem 100 percent" he said during a media briefing.
"In front of video, you will always have a human who is making an interpretation. It's not [like] goal-line technology with a vibration [on the referees wrist]. It's an interpretation."
How will VAR be used at the World Cup?
At the World Cup VAR officials will only communicate with those on the field of play if there are "clear and obvious mistakes" (that phrase again) or something has been missed across the aforementioned four areas. But they can't stop play for this.
From the point of view of the referees on the field, if they feel they need to review something then they make a clear sign to indicate a review (as if they're drawing a TV screen with their fingers) and they can review the footage at the side of the pitch and communicate with the VAR. To do this they need to go to the Referee Review Area (RRA) which is a marked area with the monitor at the side of the pitch.
The on-field referee will also show the sign to indicate a review if the VAR interjects with key information to change a decision.
In Russia, the VAR officials will officiate from the Video Operation Room (VOR) which is located in the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Moscow.
Just like broadcasters, VARs will have access to 33 broadcast cameras. These include eight super slow-motion and four ultra slow-motion cameras. An additional two offside cameras are only available to the VAR team.
Oddly two additional ultra slow-motion cameras will be installed behind the goals but only for the knock-out phase of the tournament.
We've previously visited a couple of IBC facilities and they are massive, with host broadcasters all having edit suites, offices and the ability to take pictures from all sources and studios. Essentially feeds from each of the 12 stadia go via fibre to the IBC which is then taken by each broadcaster, mixed with studio segments and other footage and so on.
In Moscow, the IBC takes up two halls at a major exhibition centre.
The VOR for Russia 2018 is centrally located, so the VAR team for all 64 games will sit in the IBC. 13 referees have been selected purely to act as video referees during the tournament. These officials had some VAR expertise previously and FIFA has trained them on the specific World Cup systems.
Crescent Comms and Hawk-Eye are provding the goalline and VAR technologies at the World Cup.
Here's the VOR in action:
Four operators work to select the best angles and have others ready if required by the VAR for specific incidents.
Aside from the main VAR, there are three others. One keeps the VAR up-to-date with live play if an incident is being reviewed. Another is dedicated to offside decisions - they anticipate if there might be a problem and checks ahead to speed up the review process.
Finally, the fourth person stands behind the others to ensure good communication. They're also watching the main feed.
The main VAR has a main display as well as a secondary one where they can see four alternative camera angles. They also communicate directly with the referee, again via a fibre line.
The offside displays feature a 3D line system which is superimposed by software. You can see more about here:
There have been several issues where crowds at games haven't known what decisions were being made - or why.
So that broadcasters (and therefore viewers and listeners) can be kept informed, a dedicated person in the VOR will provide information via a touch screen about the stages of the review, including the reason for it taking place.
This process will also mean that the correct graphics are generated for the screens in the stadium. When a decision is made, both the crowd and broadcasters will know as soon as the referee is told.