VAR: The Tech That Will Eliminate Human Error at the World Cup

Football finally has a backup to referee decisions.
Saturday 16 June 2018
VAR in action. Photo: Getty Images

England were preparing to take on West Germany for the ultimate prize in football, and 96,923 other people knew exactly what they were doing on that momentous day on the 30th of July (a glorious summer Saturday in London) in the same year that the Vietnam War was in full swing, the space race was intensifying (the USSR had successfully landed a vehicle on the moon) and boxer Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) defeated Henry Cooper (England really needed a win after that one).

It was a momentous day, and for the English, the prospect of first success in a football World Cup was truly saliva-inducing, especially up against the all-conquering, brutally efficient, stereotypically-assessed German outfit that the British media portrayed as unthinking, unfeeling, robotic super-athletes whose fathers should have been asked what they were doing in the war.

West Germany were strong favourites for the Wembley Final, but England, cheered on by a largely partisan crowd, held their own, and were even leading 2-1 with about a minute of normal time remaining. Hearts were broken though, along with those of more than 32 million people watching the televised game live in the UK, as Wolfgang Weber slid in West Germany’s equaliser in the dying moments, and the game headed for extra time.

During the extra 30-minute period, one of football’s iconic moments took place, as Geoff Hurst – the only man to this day to have hit three goals (a ‘hattrick’) in a World Cup Final – fired in a shot that came off the underside of the crossbar, bounced on or around the goal-line, and was then cleared by a West German defender.

Was it a goal or wasn’t it?

Not surprisingly, opinion was divided, with baying England supporters insisting it was, and West German players to a man insisting that it wasn’t, as the whole of the ball (a prerequisite even then) had not gone over the line.

Referee Gottfried Dienst from Switzerland – reputed to be the best referee in the world at the time – didn’t quite know what to do, but immediately sought the counsel of his linesman, and to cut a short story even shorter (the whole incident took less than 20 seconds to ‘resolve’), the goal was given.

What they talked about in terms of the words exchanged is moot, as they shared no common language. The linesman, Tofiq Bahramov, was from Azerbaijan (then part of the USSR) and spoke only Russian. Dienst would, I imagine, have been able to understand the torrent of invective that issued from the German players’ lips after the goal was awarded, and England went on to win the match 4-2.

It was, and remains as, one of the most controversial incidents in the history of world football, and there were, not surprisingly, innumerable conspiracy theories.

There was a story, almost certainly apocryphal, that when Bahramov was asked later about the incident he simply said, “that was for Stalingrad”, referring to one of the most decisive battles/sieges of the Second World War, and there were others who suggested that his decision was revenge for West Germany having eliminated the Soviet Union from the tournament in the semi-finals.

Interestingly, in his subsequently published memoirs, Bahramov pretty much admitted to not seeing the ball hit the ground after coming down off the crossbar. He said that he saw the net move, and that, in itself, constituted a goal. What happened thereafter, he maintained, was irrelevant.

Endless replays to this day have been inconclusive. You can watch it over and over and over again without being convinced. Studies have been conducted using the latest in technology, and boffins have proven that it both was, and was not, a goal.

World Cup history is suffused with controversial moments, and some would aver that Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ that wasn’t given in the 2010 edition of the World Cup was some kind of delayed justice for the events of 1966.

England were playing… you guessed it, Germany… in the round of 16. At 2-1 down, Lampard beat German keeper Manuel Neuer with a stunning shot, only for the ball to… wait for it… hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce down.

More than 40,000 people at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa, saw that the ball had gone over the line, and so did hundreds of millions more on television – even before the action replays were played out.

The only two people who didn’t see the incident properly were the only two people who mattered – the Uruguayan referee and his assistant, who waved play on and ultimately facilitated the end of England’s World Cup campaign that year.

Let’s be honest, Germany were by far the better team on the day and thoroughly deserved their 4-1 victory, but that really isn’t the point, and perhaps, never will be.

On this particular decision, there could be no debate. The officials had made a mistake, in a very important game, and a nation’s sporting hopes lay in tatters.

It is pleasing to announce that this kind of thing will never happen again.

At this summer’s World Cup Finals in Russia, VAR is to be introduced and controversial decisions will be a thing of the past.

Human error will, we are led to believe, be taken out of the equation.

So, what is VAR?

It stands for Video Assistant Referee, and if we believe the hype, it will mean that there are absolutely no wrong decisions made in a football match in which the system is deployed, ever again.

The technology itself is pretty simple – we witness it and experience it every time we watch a televised game of football.

Producers show us action replays, and we get to watch the incident all over again, possibly from different angles, and possibly in slow motion.

Armchair pundits and fans alike across the globe make their pronouncements as to whether X was offside when the ball was played, or whether Y had handled the ball inside the area (with aforethought – malicious or otherwise), or even when a player has been guilty of ‘simulation’ – that is, pretending to have suffered a foul when he hasn’t, or clutching a body part that wasn’t in the immediate vicinity of the infringement.

It happens in almost every match these days and has become an ugly part of ‘the beautiful game’. VAR will, of course, also be used to determine whether the ball has crossed the line – refer to the incidents mentioned above – and will supplement the ‘goal-line technology’ that is already being used in many major football leagues around the world, and which has been a conspicuous success.

There will be a qualified referee (and an assistant) in a remote location, monitoring the game, fittingly, on monitors, and it is this gentleman who will be able to right wrong decisions, and even alert the referee on the field with regard to an incident that he may have missed.

Controversial penalty decisions will be history; players will think twice before they dive headlong into the box after minimal, if any, contact; and the World Cup referees in Russia this summer will be breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Or will they?

It has to be true that football must move with the times, and video technology now features in many sports – most prevalently, perhaps, in cricket, where teams can refer to the ‘third umpire’ – someone with instant access to footage of an incident who can make definitive calls with the aid of a computer, replays and graphic simulations.

The point is that with the benefit of hindsight and innumerable replays, it’s very easy to make accurate calls, and the powers that be in football have decided that it’s high time to obviate even the possibility of controversy, particularly for a competition as important as the World Cup, where hopes and expectations combine with nationalism and partisanship to produce an equation that can influence GDP, crime statistics and even birth rates.

The problem is that heretofore, replays and consultation with technology have not been a resource with which referees have been endowed.

The argument for quite a while now has been that referees simply can’t cope. The speed of the game, the size of the pitch, the shenanigans deployed by crafty, artful players to hoodwink officials and get profitable decisions, have all made the professional lives of referees that much more difficult, and they need helping hands. And eyes.

“We need to live with the times,” said the president of world football’s governing body, FIFA. ”VAR was first used at the FIFA Club World Cup in 2016, and then trialled again in 2017 at the Confederations Cup, and Infantino likes the results.

“The trials,” he said, “have come up with some facts. Without VAR, the referee can make one important mistake every three matches. With VAR, it is only an important mistake every 19 matches.” The statistics are good then, and Infantino (along with many others in the game) believe that VAR will lead to a “fairer” and more “transparent” sport.

It works well in cricket, tennis, rugby, American football, ice hockey, field hockey and even taekwondo, and while critics disparage the way in which games may have been slowed down to accommodate the possibly frequent referrals, there is no disputing the fact that more correct decisions are made with the help of technology than without.

The football world is holding its breath ahead of Russia 2018, and I think most of us want it to work. There has to be a certain comfort in knowing that outrageous (wrong) decisions that affect individuals and their careers as well as the ‘happiness factor’ of entire nations will be a thing of the past.

The jury is still out on whether VAR will give us what we want – a ‘level playing field’, to use a hoary cliché – or whether confusion will reign, and resolution still be open to subjective interpretation.

VAR naysayers – not ready and unprepared for the latest layer of paint smeared across a work of art that originally maintained a perfect imperfection – will, no doubt, secretly be hoping that the system falls flat on its interface, and that games develop into unworkable farces of theatrical proportions.

Proponents will be rejoicing at the way in which machines are taking over yet another part of our valued lives.

The football world bates its breath, girds its loins, and prepares for another instalment of one of the greatest shows on Earth.

Regrettably, my father will miss the ramifications of this latest component in the evolution of the beautiful game, much as he did the 1966 World Cup Final that, more or less, started the whole, fascinating debate. The results will soon be in.

The full version of this article was first published in the June 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.

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