Last year’s World Cup featured a new breed of assistants — the virtual kind. For the first time ever, the sport’s most high-profile tournament utilised the virtual assistant referee (VAR) system in an effort to improve fairness in the game and avoid refereeing mistakes. It had some hits, like upholding Iago Aspas’s goal against Morocco, which would have been nullified for an offside without the VAR’s intervention. But it also had some issues, like initiating uncalled reviews while not doing the same for incidents that deserved a second look.
Following its introduction in the World Cup, it didn’t take long for UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin to finally sign off on VAR being utilised in the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League, “the world’s flagship club competition”.
When Ceferin announced the introduction of the VAR system, he was optimistic that there was sufficient time for UEFA to “put in place a robust system” and train up referees to make the best use of these new digital tools. However, as the first VAR-refereed Champions League matches kicked-off earlier this month, many were still unconvinced of the technology’s value to the sport.
On February 13th, the system was put to the test almost immediately when it ruled out an Ajax goal against Real Madrid, who are currently standing as bwin’s fifth favourite to win the tournament. The digital aid gave referee Damir Skomina a better look at Tadic’s offside position and his interference with Courtois’ attempt to block the goal-scoring header. The decision to disallow the goal was controversial, as some commentators argued that Courtois could not have blocked the goal, and slow, with Ajax fans celebrating for a few minutes before making his judgement, but in the end it allowed the on-pitch referee make the right call.
UEFA’s chief refereeing officer, Roberto Rosetti, explained the decision: “The referee identified that the Ajax player was in an offside position and interfering with the goalkeeper, preventing him from playing or being able to play the ball, as the header was being made. This was in line with VAR protocol and the goal was correctly overturned and an indirect free-kick given for offside.”
Regarding the time it took for the review, Rosetti added: “The most important thing is that the referee took the right decision. Accuracy is more important than speed. Nevertheless we want to be as efficient as possible and we will try to improve this even more in the future. But we have to take into account that this was a very complex situation where VAR had to check two possible offside situations and the referee also had to consider the interference of the attacking player.”
While VAR is an imperfect system with much room for improvement, it is becoming increasingly clear how important the new technology is for the game. Video reviews help referees rectify officiating gaffes, especially clear errors that can potentially impact a game. So far, that has generally meant incidents where goals, penalty kicks, and cards are involved. Already in this year’s Champions League, VAR would have helped with controversial decisions. Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off after receiving a questionable red card, while Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling won an undeserved penalty after he tripped on the turf. Had VAR been in place at the time, the referees could have reviewed both incidents, and overturned the initial erroneous calls.
Interestingly, the Champions League is one of the last remaining high-profile tournaments to implement VAR. The system is already in place in Serie A, Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, and La Liga. And the Premier League is set to follow suit for the 2020/21 season after a deal was signed by club bosses in November, with all hoping the new technology can put a stop to the endless arguments about refereeing decisions in the years to come.