Tech Meets Soccer: Could VAR Change the Game Forever?
Within the last year, IFAB (International Football Association Board) have approved a new type of referee to feature in soccer matches to work in tandem with the on-field referee, a move which could potentially change the game forever. The Sports Techie community blog is in agreement with this game-changing decision towards the inclusion of more technologies to help get calls right. Humans make errors as game officials and also while they review game film, however, the amount of times technology assists with making the right call or ruling far outweighs the amount of times it ends up screwing up an outcome. In pro soccer, jobs are on the line, postseason aspirations are in the balance and sport bets are hanging on pivotal decisions made by an official that can be easily augmented via tech.
This new additional referee, referred to as Video Assistant Referee or VAR will, as the name suggests, monitor video footage of a live match, either within the stadium or from some other nearby location and communicate with the head referee via a headset.
The VAR ref will be able to spot incidents that happen on the field of play such as fouls, hand balls, off-sides and dives (which perhaps the ref cannot see) and make the appropriate recommendations. The ref can then act on the advice given by the VAR immediately, or they can request to view the video footage on the side line from a guy with a tablet or monitor before reaching a conclusion. They will also be able to call out a referee on any decisions they make throughout the game.
This new system was successfully trialled for the first time back in August 2016, in the third tier of the MLS in a game between the New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B. The VAR system in this case helped referee Ismail Elfath to send off Conor Donovan and issue another player with a yellow.
A few months later, it was trialled again for the first time in a FIFA event at the 2016 Club World Cup semi-final in Japan. The result was the local Kashima Antlers being the first Asian team to get to the final. During the match against the Colombian Atlético Nacional, the referee watched playback of footage relayed from the VAR of a foul committed against a Kashima player, Daigo Nishi, and was able to award a penalty to the team.
— Ben Wilson (@BenWilsonFFA) February 28, 2017
So far, we have seen it being implemented across all competitive matches in MLS while other leagues across the globe have taken note, with Germany’s Bundesliga also having introduced the technology this season. The system is next due to be rolled out in the English FA Cup third round in January of next year, and FIFA have decided it is highly possible that they will use the technology during the 2018 World Cup in Russia if it is successful in the Confederations, the Under-20 and Club World Cup competitions.
FIFA see technology as playing an important role in their ‘Quality Programme’. Goal line technology which has been implemented globally since 2012, is just one example of a technology being successfully integrated into the sport. In this instance, the ball is fitted with a chip and electronic sensors are set up at either end of the goal line. Confirmation of a goal is then sent to a digital watch worn by the referee and other officials as soon as the ball crosses the goal line.
VARs are seen as a natural progression from goal line technology with Van Basten, Chief Officer for Technical Development at FIFA, insisting that they “are good for football (soccer)”. They are after all, being brought in as an attempt to reduce scandalous headlines from controversial refereeing, to encourage fair play and to minimize player deception of the officials.
All of this can only be positive for modern soccer. And while skeptics have voiced their concerns that it may sap the flow and pace of the game, especially if there are communication issues between the ref and the VAR, IFAB have assured that its use will be limited to potentially match-changing decisions, and that the referee will otherwise be free to officiate as normal.
It seems these days that technology and science in general are starting to saturate the sport. Most high-profile clubs from Manchester City to FC Barcelona now have their players sporting high-tech GPS vests which can measure all of a player’s physical stats, from their degree of exertion and muscle fatigue to their balance and overall performance. Some Leicester City players have even practiced with a robot ahead of a Champions League knockout match, an automation bearing a striking resemblance to Number 5 in the 1986 movie Short Circuit. Then there are the smart balls, such as the Micoach from Adidas, which allow you to fine-tune your skills with a soccer ball via an app that comes with the product, possibly enabling both kids and adults alike to improve their skills rapidly even when not in the presence of a coach.
Sports Techie, one thing for certain is that soccer, like many other sports already, is becoming more and more enhanced by technology as the years go by. And if this new VAR system can tick all the boxes (which looks plausible), then it follows that this most recent innovation could bring huge improvements to the quality of the game in the future.
Assisting a ref with technology is undoubtedly in the best interest of the sport. It is nice to see FIFA evolve enough to get with the times and continue changing their stance on sports tech. Instant replay is far from perfect and needs constant tweaks as done by MLB, NHL and the NFL to evolve the technology year in and year out, something the IFAB and FIFA will understand better as Russia 2018 gets nearer.
If you have ever played EA Sports FIFA 17 you know it is often years ahead of real football in terms of implementing technologies. GLT has long been a part of this awesome video game for years now yet a league such as La Liga is still not using it regularly. Reviewing plays with multiple camera angles is common place with FIFA 17. Offsides are tracked with a virtual line of the screen complimenting what the players see on their respective screens. Perhaps decision-makers at FIFA would benefit by playing in an eSports tournament and witnessing how seamless tech integration truly is.
VAR is ready for the big-time.
See ya later sports techie in Seattle, Atlanta and around the world!
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