FIFA Women’s World Cup VAR Room Media Briefing Review

PARIS, FRANCE – JUNE 12: A view inside the VAR at the main IBC on June 12, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marianna Massey – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

The FIFA TV media briefing today regarding refereeing and VAR was enlightening both as a fan of football and a sports tech expert. I especially enjoyed listening to Pierluigi Collina, Chairman of FIFA’s referee committee, he hails from Italy and speaks English with a very strong Italian accent. He was joined by Head of FIFA Referring Massimo Busacca, and Kari Seitz, FIFA Senior Refereeing Manager and head of the refereeing project for the Women’s World Cup in France. The sports tech event lasted about a hour and a half and was streamed worldwide. As curator of the Sports Techie community blog, I’ve had my digital thumb on this soccer topic for years. I learned about the discussion on Facebook when I logged on this morning and it showed up in my timeline feed so naturally I clicked over and eagerly watched it. What I learned from being in the Facebook Live session that only averaged around 300 viewers is there are plenty of haters, a whole lot of ignorance and a wee bit of acceptance which is not all bad since it is the first time VAR is being used in the WWC. Sure there has been a ton of controversy but as I said to fellow Facebookers, FIFA loves the controversy because it makes fans talk about the game. The model being Goal Line Technology (GLT) that took eight long years to finally implement. No one is talking about the USWNT goal celebrations anymore. VAR will only get better and to paraphrase a reporter at the press conference, it is NOT “destroying the game.”

Can FIFA Replicate Collina Please

I have never heard Collina speak before but he seems like an amazing ref and received plenty of accolades on FB via supporters. Perhaps one day with cloning or robotics we can replicate him and end the mess of inferior refs. I asked whether Collina could replace Alexis Lalas during Fox Sports broadcasts because by was so spot on with his assessments, not simply jumping on the bandwagon and talking way too loud and fast.

The FIFA presentation had lots of facts and figures to ponder, watch it to find out more.

It seems that VAR is nearly on par with usage compared to other FIFA tournaments. It certainly has helped with penalty kick (PK) decision making. Yes, Japan, that was a confirmed handball by a VAR still shot and the resulting PK that cost you the game against the Netherlands in a knockout match was the correct decision made with the help of Paris. As an English reporter for the BBC pointed out with the first question from the media to the panel, Collina agreed that the controversy surrounding goalies leaving the endline too early on PK’s was not enforced enough in the past. VAR has corrected that and it cost the keeper for Scotland dearly. This only makes the save by the Swedish goalie on a PK by Canada all the sweeter because she obeyed the rules and made a spectacular diving save.

FIFA refereeing project for the Women’s World Cup.

VAR at the Women’s World Cup

The biggest issue I have to date is the skill level of those watching the video replays. It was simply not enough to host two ref seminars most recently in Doha before the WWC as the prep the French tournament.

The VAR room has a video assistant referee (VAR) and his or her two assistant video assistant referees (AVARs) as support. The process is as follows, VAR operators first select then provide the ref on the pitch with the best camera angles to mostly save time. One preselects the most logical camera angles and another picks the final angles chosen by the VAR and the AVAR responsible for offsides for each checked or reviewed incident, according to FIFAcom. Confusing wording to say the least.

FIFA Referees Committee picked 27 refs and 47 assistant referees, from 42 countries. They say ten of fifteen video match officials were VARs or actual referees at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. They all were part of other FIFA tournaments gaining valuable skills. Yet, too many of the head lady refs going under the hood do not seem to grasp how to use it properly nor what to look for as the quarterfinals approach.

VAR at the WWC is only used to support the decision-making process four ways.

  1. Goals and offense leading up to a goal
  2. Penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty
  3. Direct red cards only
  4. Mistaken identity

Super Slow Motion

My Dad and brother both think super slo-mo video is ruining sport but not me. My counter is would you rather know the call is wrong and live with it or try and make the right call based on the help of video technologies, no matter how sophisticated?

Soccer is often a 0-0 score or 1-0; therefore take whatever time is necessary to review calls. As Busacca mentioned in the press conference, no one notices when an injury results in ‘dead time’ during a match because it is par for the course but a VAR review seems to incite anger because it also stops the game only this is a brand new type of stoppage. I wanted to know if 7 minutes is the new standard for extra time when VAR is used. Not one reporter asked that important question. Team Scotland would concur as they got just a few minutes of extra time after plenty of VAR review time was used versus Argentina.

The golf NGB does not allow super slomo replay anymore after fans called in citing rules violations. A Daily News reporter calls for it to be banned in all sports after the Stewards at the recent Kentucky Derby overturned the winning horse. I say golf will switch back when super slow-motion shows the world a call everyone can see that costs someone a Major win. What is this writer thinking calling for a ban across sports when it is obvious that Maximum Security was led astray by a jockey that knew the rules and violated them, slow motion had nothing to do with it. It is needed in MLB because some umpires seem blind when the play or call in right in front of them. The College World Series on ESPN is using cameras on the umps during their broadcast. The action happens too fast for eyes to perceive so bring on slomo!

The other argument I will make is this; without VAR, every call that might be reviewed will not be and that is that. Call it the Sepp Blatter era and good riddance. With VAR, a large percentage of calls reviewed will actually be either changed or reinforced. Sure, it is not a perfect system but neither are human refs. Over time, VAR will help improve the game; it’s really a numbers game, add them all up and you will see it works better than not having it. Unfortunately, fans get caught up in the few times when the system fails because the human watching the video replays proves to be incompetent more often than not and they are not focusing on all the times it actually helped. The glass is half empty for many VAR haters, not this glass half full person.

Where I see the biggest problem is what I call the ‘letter of the law’ which NFL refs are terrible at. They might see exactly what we see on TV or in-stadium but refs get caught up in what the rule might state rather than calling what they see. Collina brings that point up during the Cameroon and England game on the first goal. The best concept is to let the play run its course before blowing a whistle or raising a flag for offsides, better to raise the flag later in the play and let replay show the facts. Collina cannot understand why the Cameroon team was so upset because the offside flag was raised after the ball hit the net as the video angle he shared clearly showed. Problem is, too many refs do not get this concept, nor do many players, coaches and especially, mad fans. NFL refs love to blow the whistle early but it’s a point of emphasis and will get better as lesser quality officials get phased out, just like with FIFA VAR.

I have reffed a ton as an adult and as director of intramurals at Whittier College, mostly lacrosse and basketball, but also football, soccer, volleyball, and even water polo. I call refs the ‘Third Team’ because that is exactly what they, he or she, are. Refereeing is a tough talent to learn. Many of the best refs are ex-players but not all by no means. With superior refs, you don’t even know they are out there most of the time. I like to talk to the players and coaches letting them know what is on my mind as a ref and I give them a little leeway to talk back. I also let the players, play, meaning I do not throw a ton of flags or blow the whistle too often, only as absolutely needed. Many officials today believe fans are there to see them too which is simply not the case and is the cause of many refereeing problems, aka ego.

I also make up for calls I missed latter in the game to even things out as much as possible which is a disappearing, old school talent. Players seem to like my style as a ref for the most part. Thing is, you and I have never had VAR hawking over our shoulders which adds pressure, no matter what Seitz says. She shared that FIFA official’s ref the same whether VAR is there or not. That is pure hogwash. Of course it adds to the decision making process. The best refs can handle it, the worst cannot and we are seeing that played out in real-time at the WWC.

FIFA WWC VAR Configuration

Sports Tech to the Rescue

Oddly enough, there is not one official FIFA VAR technology provider, rather is takes three companies to produce it while GLT is all Hawk-Eye.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR): Riedel Communications GmbH & Co. KG (audio) and Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd (video)
Goal-Line Technology (GLT): Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd

5 ESSENTIAL FACTS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT VAR

  1. A video assistant referee team supports the match officials during all 52 matches.
  2. The video assistant referee team is located in a video operation room in Paris.
  3. The video assistant referee team has access to all relevant broadcast cameras.
  4. The video assistant referee does not take any decisions; he/she supports the referee in the decision making process and the final decision can only be taken by the referee.
  5. Football fans will be informed about the review process by broadcasters, commentators and infotainment.

Sports Techie, FIFA innovations are slow to be adapted, no arguing that fact. That is not always such as bad thing however as it keeps fans engaged in France and beyond with their dinosaur pace of implementing sports tech products to enhance the game. I believe GLT and VAR are here to stay but you never know.

I predict VAR use will go down as the quarterfinals, semifinals and the final come along. Why is that? Because the flushing out period is over for the WWC, the officials and VAR Room. Now, refs will be less apt to go to video review and more apt to stick with the call they see with the naked eye, ticking off all the fans, players and coaches on the other side of the decision making.

After all, it’s human nature.

Be sure to follow #VAR, #FootballTechnology and #FIFAWWC for more on World Cup VAR.

Thank you to FIFA for the media briefing video and images.

Women rule, go Team USA on Friday!

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