Video assistant referees are an imperfect but important solution
When France hosted Spain in a friendly on Tuesday night, the match offered the first "official" example of a video assistant referee (VAR) in a high-profile international. (The first instance was back at the FIFA Club World Cup in December ... and the first "unofficial" instance was probably this, even though we may never know for sure.)
VAR proponents could not have hoped for a better outcome.
Simply put, without VAR, this game would have finished in a 1-1 draw. Instead, Spain won 2-0. You don't need to be a math whiz to figure out the implications. Two reversals of incidents like the ones in this match can determine trophies, relegations, prize money and the livelihood of managers.
France thought they had taken the lead early in the second half. Christophe Jallet's chip found Layvin Kurzawa, who knocked it back across for Antoine Griezmann to head home. The Atletico Madrid star went off to celebrate as German referee Felix Zwayer consulted the VAR, who was watching replays up in the booth. Moments later, Zwayer disallowed the goal, effectively overruling his linesman.
Late in the game, Jordi Alba's low cross was met by Gerard Deulofeu, who doubled Spain's lead after David Silva had converted a penalty earlier. This time, the assistant referee signalled for offside. But Zwayer again was in contact with the VAR. And after about 40 seconds, he determined that the goal should stand.
Triumph all around for VAR then. In many ways, these were perfect examples of how the system can work when it functions well. Both offside calls were very close. In normal circumstances, only the grumpiest among us would crucify the linesman for making the decisions they originally took. Yet the replays clearly showed that both decisions were incorrect. By a sliver, perhaps, but still undoubtedly wrong.
This is exactly why VAR is being introduced. Many offside decisions are hugely difficult for assistant referees. Not only do they need to run -- and sometimes sprint -- up the line to ensure they maintain the best possible position, they also need to be sure of where the players are at the precise moment a pass is made. And if they're unsighted or it's a long pass, it's extremely difficult to look at two places -- where the last defender is and, say, 30 yards back up the pitch -- at the same time. Unlike chipmunks, assistant referees do not have eyes on the sides of their heads.
Last week, at the Football Talks conference in Lisbon, Pierluigi Collina, the new head of the FIFA Referees Commission, said there were limits to how accurate human assistant referees could be. UEFA's research showed that in the last few seasons of Champions League football, linesmen got around 95 percent of offside calls correct. When you consider the speed of the game and the difficulties faced, it's a good result. But it's an upper limit too. At some point, technology has to pick up the slack.
VARs can be used to review major decisions, including goals, penalty incidents, red cards and cases of mistaken identity. The VAR can either notify the referee, or the referee can ask the VAR for help. The final decision, as ever, rests with the referee.
This innovation is long overdue in football, and it ought to be welcomed. At the same time, there are a number of caveats we ought to be aware of. And we need to be realistic about what can be improved and the level of human error we'll just need to continue to accept.
The first is that VAR, in its current form, will only cover major incidents. There are minor ones which can turn into major ones, and they won't be covered. The most obvious situation is an incorrectly awarded throw-in or free kick that leads to a goal. Or, perhaps, an incorrectly awarded booking followed by a legitimate one that leads to a red.
Another is that referees will need to put their faith in the VAR. A referee may feel he had a perfect view of an incident. The VAR is only supposed to overrule him if the video evidence is clear. But there is no textbook definition of "clear." What's clear to one official might be less clear to another. And sure, the referee can review the video himself at pitchside. But that will slow down the game (and note how much praise was lavished on Zwayer and the VAR for overturning the Deulofeu decision in just 40 seconds).
And there are egos involved. If the VAR says something is clearly wrong and the referee isn't sure and decides he wants to review the incident himself, he's implicitly big-footing the VAR. The reverse is also true. A referee can simply go with the VAR every time and effectively abdicate responsibility for tough decisions.
Finally, much will depend on the replays and camera angles that the VAR is privy to. That makes a difference. The feed for games is often broadcast from two different perspectives (so the organisers can target pitchside ads for different markets). Here's Griezmann's goal from the French feed, and here it is from the Spanish one. And here's Deulofeu from one side, and the other.
VARs have a whole bank of monitors to consult, but -- since they're presumably human -- they are bound to favour one set of pictures in real time. True, they need to review all major incidents, but the "first look" can often influence how you view subsequent ones, especially on close calls. And they will have seconds to find and review the most relevant camera angles.
None of these hurdles is insurmountable. Viewers will need to get used to the system, its strengths and weaknesses, and learn to accept its limits. Referees and VARs will need to figure out how to have productive relationships with each other, as well as reach some sort of understanding on the meaning of the word "clear." VARs -- and those who provide their technology -- will need to quickly get up to speed and develop the best methods of dealing with the tools available.
In other words, there will be growing pains and a learning curve. And, predictably, after the first few high-profile VAR screw-ups (and there will be some), you'll get the usual crew of curmudgeons complaining about it and asking whether it's really worth it. These are the same numbskulls who talk about "mistakes being part of the game" and how we'd have nothing to talk about if not for refereeing errors -- folks like Welsh FA chief executive Jonathan Ford, who famously said in 2010 that "debates" over things like Geoff Hurst's long-disputed goal at Wembley in the 1966 World Cup final represent "the beauty of the game" and contribute to "keeping the game alive."
What a sad, dreary world he must live in, and what a low opinion of football he must hold, if he thinks this sort of stuff is beautiful and necessary to keep football from dying.
Mistakes are part of the game. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to limit those mistakes that are avoidable. VARs showed us what they can do on Tuesday. It won't always work this well, but as France boss Didier Deschamps put it: "The game is evolving. We need to evolve with it."
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.