In a tournament packed with mononymous stars, the breakout name of the 2018 World Cup is actually an acronym. VAR, which stands for “Video Assistant Referee,” has made its debut in Russia, and the officiating technology has already featured in a few major decisions. So far, it is working.
In the broadest sense, VAR works similarly to the video review processes used in the NBA and NFL. After a contentious, match-changing incident on the pitch, a referee stationed in a remote studio reviews replay footage and alerts the in-game official to any possible infringements that may have been missed, or errors that were made in the original call (or non-call). On Saturday, VAR made its first-ever World Cup penalty decision. Our little acronym is growing up so fast.
It came in the 54th minute of France’s opening match against Australia. French forward Antoine Griezmann galloped onto a through ball and stumbled as he entered the box. Referee Andrés Cunha waved play on, but around 20 seconds later he received an alert over his earpiece. The VAR official had observed that Griezmann was, in fact, tripped by a defender. Cunha blew his whistle and jogged just off the pitch to a video monitor, which looks a lot like an airport ticketing kiosk, and reviewed relevant replay angles. Cunha then awarded France a penalty, which Griezmann neatly tucked into the back of the net. VAR 1, Australia 0.
I clocked the entire sequence, from (uncalled) foul to awarded penalty, at one minute and 31 seconds.
VAR struck again on Saturday during Peru’s match against Denmark. The referee originally saw nothing wrong with a Danish player’s clumsy tackle in the box on Peru’s Christian Cueva. Play briefly continued before the official received word through his earpiece and visited the monitor. The penalty appeal was retroactively approved, though Cueva’s ensuing attempt may have dented the underside of a U-2 spy plane.
From foul to penalty call, VAR’s order of operations in that incident took one minute and 35 seconds.
VAR isn’t reserved just for penalty decisions. Spain’s first goal in its barnburning 3–3 draw with Portugal on Friday was subjected to review to determine whether striker Diego Costa had fouled a defender during the build-up. No malfeasance was discovered, and the on-pitch referee let the goal stand. This decision didn’t call for him to check the replays himself, and so the process barely delayed the match.
The system isn’t perfect, largely thanks to that pesky glitch known as the human element. During Argentina’s draw against Iceland on Saturday, an Icelandic defender looked to have illegally impeded striker Cristian Pavón in the box. The ref didn’t call a foul, nor did he request the VAR official to take a look. While the VAR official can examine incidents on his or her own volition, the play was ignored in this instance and Argentina was denied a penalty (which may have been a relief for Lionel Messi.)
Still, based on early returns, VAR has shown itself to be an improvement on the systems used in the NBA and NFL. The NBA’s over-reliance on replay frequently breaks the flow of the game, while the NFL’s video reviews can take ages and oftentimes don’t even result in the correct calls. Perhaps VAR knows what a catch is?
Take Zach Ertz’s fourth-quarter touchdown for the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. The entire process from when the ball crossed the plane of the end zone to the video review and eventual upholding of the original decision took three minutes and 30 seconds. That’s two full minutes longer than Saturday’s World Cup penalty reviews, and those delays occurred only because real infractions were spotted. If the VAR official hadn’t detected any fouls, then play would have continued, uninterrupted.
The World Cup is still very much in its honeymoon period with VAR. As a system designed for controversial incidents, we shouldn’t assume it will make it through the tournament with a spotless reputation. Nonetheless, VAR has passed its early tests. The calls have been on the mark, even if some of the ensuing penalty kicks haven’t been.