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Video Assistant Referee: technology in football and why it just isn’t working - yet

(Image credit: Youtube / Mo7nd)

Digital transformation, driven by developments in many different areas of technology - from the Internet of Things and cloud technology, to big data and artificial intelligence - now affects every part of our lives. From medicine to transport, to the way we work, technology is transforming the way we live - and the sporting world is no different.

Following in the footsteps of Hawk-Eye in cricket and Television Match Official (TMO) in rugby, VAR or Video Assistant Referee is making waves in English Football. Since its first inception in 2016, VAR is now entrenched in the sport, with Premier League clubs voting unanimously in November 2018 to introduce VAR in the 2019/20 season.

With high-profile refereeing errors shaping the direction of matches and tournaments (remember the disallowed Frank Lampard’s goal in the England-Germany World Cup clash anyone?) it's perhaps unsurprising there is an appetite for technology in the sport. However, controversy has stolen the headlines continuously since the season’s start, with inconsistent decisions – and the time it takes to make them – sparking fury and frustration from managers, players and supporters, who are often left puzzled by the lack of information in the stadium.

What is VAR?

Since VAR was introduced, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) has recorded the accuracy of decision-making on goals, red cards and penalties as rising from 82 per cent last season to above 90 per cent.

The way that VAR works is that all cameras from a stadium - usually between 12 and 15 - will transmit a feed back to the Video Operations Room in Stockley Park, Uxbridge. They will then signal to the referee when it should be used, and that usually requires between 30 and 40 seconds - the time it normally takes to restart after a goal is scored. In order to ensure that the game isn't called back as a review goes on, the VAR only has until the next time the ball goes out of play to signal to the referee, although they can say for him to stop play when it does go out or into a neutral zone.

The VAR cannot make decisions during a game; it supports the referee in the stadium by providing them with real-time video analysis using the network of cameras including some pretty advanced 3D modelling software that can specifically check if a player is offside or not. Furthermore, the system, it’s asserted, is only to be called upon when a referee has missed something that is demonstrably black or white. The rule of thumb is essentially “if it’s not clear and obvious, leave it”, and “minimum interference, maximum benefit”.

The criticism

The potential and the benefits are widely accepted, but, several months into the footballing season and it’s fair to say that sports news has been dominated by headlines bemoaning VAR decisions. While it’s agreed that technology reduces errors, which is of vital importance in today’s big-money sporting contests, it also means a goal can be scored, celebrated and then disallowed, meaning that spectators at the stadium do not act spontaneously. Instead of being able to instantly jump up and down in delight at their team scoring a goal, they have to wait on technology.

"The human element of the game is a critical component of it," said the executive of the Welsh Football Association, in a report by The Guardian. "It's the thing ultimately we end up debating. That's the beauty of the game and it's what keeps people talking in the pubs afterwards. I was worried you would end up with a stop-start situation where you review all decisions and I don't see that as part of the game."

Another criticism is that there is a fundamental lack of clarity. On matchday, fans in grounds up and down the country have been left bewildered as to what VAR is actually checking, what the delay is for, and why decisions have been made. In tennis, the umpire, the crowd and the TV audience can, in unison see what’s happening on a large screen, and nobody can argue with the decision. In rugby, the conversations between the referee and the video referee are clear for all to hear, and once again, everyone trusts that the system is working efficiently.

Accepting human error is still an issue

Some point to failures in technology. In cricket, many pundits have questioned the accuracy of the Hawk-Eye system which is based on principles of triangulation via visual images and data transmitted by video cameras placed at various locations and angles around the area of play. For example, in a quarter-finals match at the Indian Wells Masters 2009, Hawk-Eye mistakenly captured the second bounce of the ball instead of the first, resulting in the wrong judgment of the gameplay which was eventually overruled by the human judge.

However, the technology challenges simply aren’t there in VAR. The technology is ultra-reliable - no matter where a Premier League game is being played, VAR is always based in Stockley Park, on the outskirts of London. To date, there have been no issues with latency between the stadium the match is being played, and the VAR studio - with communications instant and video replays being available to the extra officials in real-time.

The technology that underpins VAR has functioned perfectly well with the fast demands of the modern game, and save for a brief loss of audio chatter (due to a faulty headset), we’ve had no lapses in communication between the on-field officials and those charged with casting a beady eye over proceedings in Stockley Park.

Darren Watkins, managing director, VIRTUS Data Centres