Testing the VAR: recognising the traps that video assistant referees face
“I am going to be your VAR, get ready because I know nothing about refereeing. It’s going to get messy. If it is up to me, we are going to get into trouble”. Over the phone, I hear the referee reply, “no problem, we will get into trouble together, then”. That is how, last Friday (21), I kicked off my first experience in the São Paulo State Football Federation’s (Federação Paulista de Futebol) video assistant referee simulator, already getting into the referee frame of mind that would follow me throughout the test. He was elsewhere, in front of a monitor just like the ones we see on pitch sidelines. And I was inside a room, in front of gear of the system developed to help referees during matches. The technology will be used effective the knock-out stages of the São Paulo State Championships and throughout this year’s entire ‘Brasileirão’ (Brazilian National Championship).
The minutes following the sincere caution I made would change my thoughts in regards to the VAR and on what to expect of its use. It is much harder than what I expected. My performance began with a goal kick taken. I am instantly warned by the instructor, “The video is up there, Ricardo”. With two screens in front of me, in addition to those used by the video assistant referee and the equipment operator, I got confused. I was watching the match on the monitor that shows plays with a three-second delay. It is used to clarify doubts after a play has happened. In these situations, the assistant continues watching the live match.
Upon trying to undo my blunder, I looked at the right screen and saw a foul offence in the midfield line that made me leave my small discomfort zone. I was now in a major discomfort zone. First, the doubt arises. Was it something relevant for me to stop the match? What if I stop it and it is nothing important? Can you imagine the entire stadium waiting (in the real world, there were around 20 people related to refereeing and participating in the FPF’s VAR training)?
Feeling a chill down my spine, I decide to stop the match, because if the match carries on for long, it can no longer be stopped. This is where the second stage of psychological torture kicks in. To recall the entire standard proceeding. To press the red button that activates the computer, ask the referee to interrupt the match and tell him that the play is being checked.
“Stop the match, please. I am doing a check here”, I proclaim solemnly, trying to imagine how a referee would say it and pressing the red button firmly. Minutes before, Ednilson Corona, president of the federation’s refereeing commission, had explained to me that communication is one of the main traps for a VAR. “We are working hard to improve communication. It is one of the main challenges. You need to be certain that you were clear with the referee. Can you imagine if you say, “it was not a penalty”, however, for some reason, the communicator only catches on to the sentence after its beginning, and the referee only hears “it was a penalty”? Think about the mess”, Corona explained.
Therefore, I pressed the red button as if it could release oxygen into the room. I was so focused on it that I forgot about the green one, right next to it. This one should be pressed each time a doubtful play is seen. It is used to mark plays that may require a review. It makes the life of the ‘replay’ operator sitting to my right easier (at my left-hand side is an assistant to help mainly with offside plays). State Championship matches will feature two assistants called AVARs (VAR assistants).
“I need you to tell me a point of contact for that foul. Where do you think it actually happened?”, the operator asks, since I did not mark the play. I look at his screen and see several small squares, each one with a part of the play. I think, “how will I know? I do not know how to operate this”.
Again, I recall the interview given by Corona a few moments earlier. “Another difficulty relates to the lack of practice referees have with video equipment. There are numerous cameras available, however, it is hard for those who are not used to knowing which one is the best for each play. The operator helps, but not with everything. If he starts giving his opinion, this is considered external influence on refereeing, which is forbidden”, the president of the refereeing commission states. The São Paulo State Championships will feature up to 19 cameras per match.
In my case, the operator started to replay the play backwards until the start of the play (and time going by, imagine in a stadium, with everyone waiting. Here it was “only” a seasoned refereeing troop waiting and probably thinking, ‘this guy has no right to ever criticise a referee’). At last, I was certain of what I had seen and pressed the red button again. “Please watch the play again because player number 12, wearing white (I am corrected by the instructor, since it was actually player number 42), stepped on the player in blue”. After nearly 20 seconds, I am instructed to tell the referee what is the best footage we have. So, additionally, I have to recommend the camera with the best angle for the referee. And time is going by.
He had not seen that one player had stepped on the other. He had only given a yellow card to the player in blue and awarded a foul committed by him. With my help, despite my awkward approach, he correctly sends off the player in white, upholds the foul as well as the yellow card awarded to the player in blue. It is, in truth, a staged situation and we are only examining the recorded footage of a match. From the time I told the referee until the decision was taken, three minutes and 31 seconds had passed. And this in a fairly straightforward play.
With the challenge over, I take off my headphones and report my experience to the FPF refereeing staff: “in spite of all this technology, it is really hard”. There are a lot of things to pay attention to. Several screens, audio coming in the headphones, protocol to follow.
And actual referees called to work as VARs have another trap to try to avoid. “They are used to making decisions, but here they will only help. They need to train to adapt to this new situation”, Corona explains.
While pretending to be a video assistant referee, I also realized why VARs can only intervene in four situations: doubts as to whether it was a goal, penalty, a play worthy of sending-off and card shown to the wrong player. With so many cameras pointed in every direction, a lot goes on that the pitch referee does not see. If those who have the technology at the tips of their fingers decide to fix everything, the game will not flow.
And even with the scope of possibilities reduced, there is still a large margin left for error. Decisions have to be swift, pressure is enormous, in addition to the huge array of information that needs to be assimilated. This explains why São Paulo State Federation training sessions feature officials who use devices that measure their heart rates when making decisions. Two psychologists assess and help to train each one.
After the tests, the FPF will decide who will take over each role. Sixteen main pitch referees, in addition to their assistants, attended the training sessions using the simulator this week. On Saturday (23), Morumbi Stadium is expected to host a test match played by two São Paulo club youth rank teams. On the following day, a staged situation during a São Paulo vs. Red Bull match is expected to take place. Plays will be evaluated by the VAR, but only for the test, and without communication with the refereeing team.
Also this Saturday, Morumbi will undergo an inspection to receive official certification to be able to use the video assistant referee. Next Wednesday will be Allianz Parque’s turn. This stage poses another concern regarding the system, which is the safety of the team working with their eyes glued to the monitors. If any of the stadia lacks an appropriate space, they will have to work from inside containers. The concern is that spectators discover where they are. That is why the idea is to not put any kind of identification on any of these spots.
In light of all these specifics, the best definition is one that has already become a lingo used among referees: “VAR exists to remove elephants that appear on the pitch. The tiny ants will still be there”.