<
>

World Cup use of VAR has been an effective, giant leap in right direction

play
Collina: Ref's VAR chat could be broadcast in future (0:51)

Head of FIFA Referees Committee Pierluigi Collina insists they have not ruled out allowing TV viewers to listen in on VAR decisions in the future. (0:51)

MOSCOW -- There are philosophical objections. There's a belief among some that technology has no place in sports. That's fine. Others believe that our obsession with getting things right is futile and detrimental to the game because we can never be perfect anyway. That's fine too. There's a school of thought that it's useless because heck, it's only a game, right? And while I personally find that last viewpoint weird and disturbing, I guess I can live with it.

If your views on video assistant refereeing fall in any of the above three categories, nothing you read here will convince you. But if your objections to VAR are of a different nature, please read on. Maybe you'll change your mind.

First, a basic ground rule: we're talking about VAR as it has performed through 48 group games at the 2018 World Cup. Not its application in the A-League, nor its trials in the FA Cup with the poor referee standing there confused for what felt like hours. This distinction is important because the group of officials at this World Cup are the best referees in the world and the VARs in the booth selected were, to a man, all officials who have used VAR before.


World Cup 2018 must-reads

- Make your daily picks with ESPN FC Match Predictor 2018!
- World Cup fixtures, results and coverage

- Southgate resting England's best players is a gamble that will only pay off by beating Colombia
- Maradona, Neuer on the wing and Ronaldo free kicks: World Cup 2018 good, bad, ugly and bizarre so far
- World Cup faces: Check out some of the best fan pictures so far


If you have good referees, there's less need for VAR. And equally, if you have experience using it, you can make decisions quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, accurately. This is a luxury the World Cup has that other competitions do not.

The impact of this is hard to dispute. Without VAR, Colombia would have been eliminated, there would have been seven fewer penalties and two fewer goals plus two penalties would have been awarded and a Peru player would have been unjustly booked in a case of mistaken identity. In a group stage with three games, incidents have outsized effects. There's no telling exactly how things would have unfolded without it, but we do know things would have been different.

FIFA say there were 335 incidents at this World Cup that were checked by officials -- the vast majority of them "silent checks" in which matters get reviewed in the booth -- with 17 of them leading to on-field reviews. Of those, 95 percent were called correctly by the referees. (We have a handy timeline here.) Throw in the ones "corrected" by VAR and we're at 99.3 percent.

It's not perfect because referees are human and so too are the ones who sit in the VAR booth (who, by the way, are also referees). Also these are obviously FIFA figures, so take them with a grain of salt. It doesn't mean they were made up, but it's likely FIFA gave fairly wide latitude in their interpretation of correct vs. incorrect to the referee's discretion. After all, there's a fair degree of subjectivity involved in many calls, which is why, ultimately, it's the referee on the pitch who makes the decision.

"When we meet and we go through incidents with referees, we don't agree all the time," says Massimo Busacca, FIFA's director of referees. "Sometimes maybe there's 20 percent who feel one way about it and 80 percent who feel another way."

That's why it's critical the final call belongs to the guy on the pitch. One guy taking responsibility: the same as it's always been. All we are doing in marginal situations is giving him more evidence to look at when making his decision.

Note that "subjectivity" doesn't mean the randomness of a finger in the wind or flipping a coin. There are the Laws of the Game and then there are directives issued to match officials to help them interpret specific situations; these are often pretty clear. Marcos Rojo's handball against Nigeria was not a penalty because the ball came off his head and then hit his arm. Cedric's handball for Portugal against Iran was a penalty because the arm was away from the body and the ball came off an Iranian player. You can debate whether these directives should exist, but you can't really argue that the regulations were applied incorrectly. Not with a straight face, anyway.

The trouble is that many in the media (including many ex-pros) simply seem to be unaware of this, as Pierluigi Collina, head of FIFA referees, pointed out when he said: "I'm a bit surprised sometimes by the reactions we get to certain decisions."

When folks mix subjectivity with VAR, the two tend to get confused. Case in point: you may remember Steven Zuber pushing Miranda before scoring Switzerland's equalizer with a header against Brazil. The push wasn't missed by VAR; it was judged to have been a "light push," which is also how the referee judged it in real time. So, no VAR intervention. You can debate whether this was right or wrong, but you can't blame VAR. Nor can you blame VAR for Cristiano Ronaldo not getting sent off against Iran for elbowing an opponent.

Indeed, there were probably only a handful of incidents that were fairly stonewall and that VAR missed entirely: Aleksandar Mitrovic and Harry Kane getting dumped on their heads against Switzerland and Tunisia respectively, and Marcus Berg being laid out by Jerome Boateng in the Sweden vs. Germany game. There aren't too many more that fall outside the "referee's subjectivity" umbrella, so it's hard to argue in good faith that VAR has led to more incorrect decisions.

What about those other objections, the ones that suggest it's not worth the hassle?

Does VAR take too long? Nope: on average it has taken all of 80 seconds. Compare that to the time lost every match for fouls (8 minutes, 16 seconds) and throw-ins (7 minutes, 42 seconds).

Does it lead to messy breakdowns in technology and protocol? Not in this World Cup it hasn't.

Does it disrupt the "flow of the game"? Again, no. It is used, on average, once every three matches.

Does it rob us of the spontaneous joy of celebrating? If you enjoy celebrating goals that should not stand, I guess so. In fact, it triples your celebration. When Kim Young-Gwon scored three minutes into injury time for South Korea against Germany, I saw folks celebrating widely three times: first when the ball went in, then when they watched the replay and saw it was being reviewed, and finally when it was awarded.

There are ancillary benefits, too. A flurry of early penalties has led to a sharp drop in the amount of holding and shirt-pulling in dead ball situations. There is far less dissent and arguing with referees since it's largely pointless. We've had only one straight red card thus far (and that was for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity) and two second yellows (neither for nasty fouls).

Can VAR be improved? Sure. Releasing the transcripts of the audio conversation between referee and VAR would be a huge step in the right direction in terms of transparency. Adding an appeal system might make sense too, but for now, we're well ahead of where we were.

VAR can be expensive, and it might not be right for every league. A mid-table clash with nothing at stake might not warrant the effort. But this is the World Cup. Refereeing mistakes, especially the more grotesque ones, made here get talked about not for weeks or even months but for decades.

Mistakes will still be talked about because referees will still make mistakes and still anger fans, managers and players no matter how many innovations are made in the sport. But in the meantime, the fact that we've cut down on howlers and added a layer of accuracy is a giant leap in the right direction.