Heavy titular favourites France laboured to a 2-1 win over Australia in their first match at the World Cup 2018 in Russia. However, history will choose to remember this match less for the on-field action than for the first noted usage of VAR technology. The Video Assistant Referee technology or VAR as it is colloquially known, is being showcased in this edition of the FIFA World Cup. This technology enables the match referee to review and reverse in-game decisions after consulting video replays of the contentious play.

Antoine Griezmann’s 58th minute penalty was initially not called by the match referee and only after the referee stopped the game to review the replay of the alleged foul in the penalty box, was a penalty awarded. Incidentally, France’s second goal and eventual game winner was also assisted by technology, introduced in the 2014 edition of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil i.e. goal line technology.

After years of deliberating over ways to increase accuracy of in-game decisions, the International Football Association Board (the body in charge of establishing and amending the “Laws of the Game”) approved the use of VAR technology to assist referees in making crucial in-game decisions. VAR was given a trial run in the English, German and Italian league competitions and only formally introduced in this tournament.

Article 53 of the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia Regulations stipulates the use of VAR in order to “assist the referee to make a decision using replay footage”.

So how is it used? When is it needed? Is it a fool-proof system? We have answers to all these questions and more:

  • When is VAR used?

VAR is only used to review a “clear obvious mistake” in calling one of the following 4 in-game decisions: (1) goals; (2) penalties; (3) straight red cards; and (4) mistaken identity. The use of VAR is restricted to these crucial decisions only, in order to minimise reviewing every contentious decision which disrupts the flow of the game. There has been confusion about the definition of a ‘clear and obvious’ mistake, since the nature of the sport deems it relatively subjective, particularly then it comes to reviewing contact in the box to call penalties. However, the use of replays can allow referees to review their calls, which may have been inaccurate or unseen. For objective decisions like offside, even if a player is marginally offside, VAR will deem that a clear and obvious error because offside decisions are categorically objective – a player is either offside or he/she is not.

  • What is the time limit for using VAR?

No actual minute time limit has been set for use of VAR, but it cannot be used for an incident once play has restarted after being stopped, either naturally or by the match official asking for a VAR. Therefore, even if VAR fails to spot and flag up something prior to a free-kick, goal-kick, throw-in, corner-kick etc., it is too late. Goals can also only be disallowed using VAR if something is amiss in the attacking move which leads to it being scored, not during the longer build-up period.

  • How will it work in real time?

VAR officials watch the match in a remote location, with access to multiple state of the art cameras and recording technology. VAR officials are connected to the on-pitch officials via wireless communication. VAR officials alert the on-field officials in real time to either reverse the decision or in the case of subjective decisions, stop play and review a particular incident on the field which is directly related to the above mentioned 4 areas of decision making. In this instance the referee will draw a rectangle with his arms to replicate a TV screen, similar to the third umpire referrals in cricket.

  • Is it fool-proof?

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has been quoted as saying “I would say to the fans, players and coaches that it will have an impact, a positive impact, that is what the results of the study show… From almost 1,000 live matches that were part of the experiment, the level of the accuracy increased from 93% to 99%. It’s almost perfect.

Among several criticisms of VAR ranging from the age-old “loss of human touch” to the disruption in the flow of the game, the most concerning and real criticism of VAR is that it does not solve the “human interpretation” problem as the rules of the game are subjective and calls may differ from referee to referee. However, I opine that it doesn’t aggravate this problem as well. It merely affords the opportunity to review a call, and if a mistake is spotted, the opportunity to recall it is presented.

Abhimanyu Baheti is an Associate at the New Delhi office of GameChanger Law Advisors. He can be reached at abhimanyu@gamechangerlaw.com.