VAR at the World Cup: Assessing every major decision in Russia
Video assistant referees (VARs) have hit the headlines in Russia.
We look at every decision a referee has had to make when directed to review an incident on the monitor at the side of the pitch. So far the referee has changed his mind on every penalty call and given a spot kick. The only decision that has not been changed following a VAR review was to show a red card to Serbia's Aleksandar Prijovic, though he was correctly booked.
We also consider the times the match referee has not been asked to review when perhaps VAR should have done so.
VAR reviews rated: 33
Total points: 251
Average rating: 7.61
Sunday, July 15: France vs. Croatia
Just when we thought the latter stages of the World Cup had been untouched by the controversy of VAR, it made an appearance in the final. France played in a corner from the right, Blaise Matuidi attempted to flick it on and when Ivan Perisic knocked it behind for another corner the French players strongly appealed for handball.
Argentine referee Nestor Pitana waited for advice from the VAR before going to watch a pitchside review. There is no doubt that the ball hit Perisic's hand, and there was a small movement towards the ball. But as we have seen in the rest of this article, every time the ball has hit a defender's arm in the penalty area, and VAR has reviewed, a penalty has been given.
VAR RATING: 7/10 Many will not feel this was a "clear and obvious error" and should have not been reviewed, or it was "deliberate" from Perisic, but what we do have here is consistency from VAR across the whole tournament on handball -- like it or not.
Friday, July 6: Brazil vs. Belgium
This is going to be a controversial one. Gabriel Jesus was running towards goal when Vincent Kompany came across and made a challenge. The Brazil players immediately appealed but referee Milorad Mazic pointed for a goal kick. VAR indicated it was reviewing the incident but after a short while gave the official the green light to continue play.
TV replays -- especially one from the rear as Jesus was running -- looked damning. However, this was a difficult one for VAR. The first contact on Jesus, when Kompany's foot touched his shin, was very slight. It would not have been enough to cause the fall that Jesus suffered, and the Laws of the Game are clear than contact alone does not automatically mean a foul. FIFA's VAR press conference at the end of the group stage made this clear -- force of contact is important. Therefore, with the contact really only being a touch, the VAR will most likely have not considered this serious enough to qualify as "a clear and obvious error."
So does VAR consider the secondary move from Kompany's other leg? Even if that is a foul, which is also doubtful from the side angle, the ball was out of play when contact is made. And if the ball is out, a penalty cannot be given.
All in all here, there is more than enough doubt for the VAR officials to consider this not to be "a clear and obvious error."
VAR RATING: 8/10 Again, the real problem for VAR here is far too many people do not know why a decision was reached, or what was even considered. It causes confusion. So while the decision was probably correct, it loses a couple of marks.
Late in the game, Neymar challenged for a high ball with Thomas Meunier and went down screaming for a penalty. Replays showed that the outstretched hand of Meunier definitely touched Neymar's face, but again contact was minimal and the Brazilian's theatrical fall likely made the contact appear less than it was to the VAR -- most of his reaction may have appeared self-made rather than inflicted. A "clear and obvious error"? Difficult to see how it could be judged as such.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Nowhere near enough contact to give a penalty, and remember again the point about force of contact.
Tuesday, July 3: Sweden vs. Switzerland
Deep into stoppage time Martin Olsson was through on goal for Sweden when he was pushed in the back by Swiss defender Michael Lang. Referee Damir Skomina immediately pointed to the spot and showed Lang a red card -- the correct decision as a push cannot be deemed a genuine attempt to play the ball.
However, the VAR indicated to Skomina that the offence may have taken place outside the box, and after the official viewed the incident pitch-side he changed his decision from a penalty to a free kick on the edge of the box.
VAR RATING: 8/10 We've seen this once before, but decisions over where an offence have taken place should be made by the VAR, with no need to refer to the match referee. The correct decision was made, but it could have been done much quicker by VAR alone.
Monday, July 2: Brazil vs. Mexico
Neymar and Miguel Layun had tangled a couple of times before the incident midway through the second half. Neymar rolled off the pitch following a challenge from Layun, and when the Mexico player went to retrieve the ball Neymar howled in anguish and behaved like he had suffered a serious injury.
Subsequent replays suggested Layun may have stood on Neymar's ankle, though the level of force did not seem to be commensurate to the histrionics from the Brazilian. Given the replays seen, it is surprising that the VAR did not ask referee Gianluca Rocchi to take a second look. Some referees would certainly have considered Layun's actions to be violent conduct, but the VAR clearly must have felt it was accidental contact.
VAR RATING: 6/10 No one had any sympathy for Neymar with his reaction, but perhaps the match referee should have been directed to take his own view.
Sunday, July 1: Spain vs. Russia
The first day of the round of 16 went without any VAR incident, and we had to wait until deep into extra time in this game. The ball came into the Russian box and Sergio Ramos tangled with Ilya Kutepov. Referee Bjorn Kuipers waved away the appeal and gave a goal kick, with the Spanish players immediately following the official to appeal.
VAR instigated a review and looked at the footage, but while Kutepov did have contact, the Real Madrid defender had locked arms and had hold of the Russian's shirt -- as well as a hand on his opponent's shoulder. Both were guilty of grappling and VAR was 100 percent correct that this was not a "clear and obvious error".
VAR RATING: 10/10 The very first replays may suggest this should have been a penalty, but there is no doubt both had hold of each other and VAR was correct to review and to stay with the on-pitch referee.
Thursday, June 28: Senegal vs. Colombia
Sadio Mane was through on goal when Davison Sanchez made a last ditch tackle. Referee Milorad Mazic immediately pointed to the spot, but VAR quickly made the decision to advise the official to watch a replay himself. Mazic didn't need long to see that Sanchez had got a huge chunk of the ball first and he reversed his decision.
VAR RATING: 10/10 In past World Cups this would have been a massive injustice at a crucial moment in a decisive game. With VAR it can be fixed, and fixed quickly.
Wednesday, June 27: South Korea vs. Germany
The clock had just ticked over into stoppage time. After a little pinball in the box the ball fell to Kim Young-Gwon, completely unmarked inside the box, and he tucked the ball past Manuel Neuer. As soon as the ball went into the net the linesman raised his flag for offside, as per VAR protocol if he has any doubt.
Where VAR strayed slightly is sending the review to the match referee. Factual decisions, such as offside, should be decided by the VAR alone. It's not a hard and fast rule, as the match referee can still request to look, but here there was no need to send it downstairs. The replay very clearly showed that it was Toni Kroos who poked the ball through to Kim and the goal should have been given by the VAR.
VAR RATING: 9/10 A huge incorrect offside decision was fixed, but there was no need for a pitchside review. It was factual that the Germany player had played the ball so there could be no offside.
Mexico v Sweden
Javier Hernandez's heart was in his mouth when he tried to chest the ball down inside the area. Several Sweden players appealed for handball immediately but referee Nestor Pitana waved away the claims. When the ball went out of play, the official held up the restart before VAR instructed him to take another look on his pitch-side monitor.
Though there was certainly some evidence the ball may have hit Hernandez's arm, it wasn't certain whether it had hit the side of his chest first (and thus neutralising any handball appeal) or in fact if it had hit his arm at all. Perhaps the probability was that it did hit his arm, so Hernandez was a little lucky the referee stayed with his original decision.
VAR RATING: 8/10 Pitana was within his rights to reject the review if he did not feel he had made a clear and obvious error. Other referees might have pointed to the spot.
Switzerland vs. Costa Rica
Costa Rica's Bryan Ruiz was through on goal when he tangled with Ricardo Rodriguez, and referee Clement Turpin pointed to the spot. VAR did its usual check and it soon became apparent that Ruiz was in an offside position when the ball was nodded onto him, though the penalty award itself was soft and may well have been subject to a full review.
The VAR chalked off the penalty as soon as it became clear there was an offside offence before the foul.
VAR RATING: 10/10 VAR didn't send the review down to the referee as in the Germany vs. South Korea game. There is no need as it's a factual decision. Perfect application.
Tuesday, June 26: Nigeria vs. Argentina
Marcos Rojo tried to head the ball, but only managed to nod it onto his own arm. Referee Cuneyt Cakir waved away the appeals of Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo, but the VAR decided that it needed a closer look from the match official. Cakir went over to his screen and quickly rejected the chance to change his mind.
Deflections off the same defender should not lead to a penalty award for handball, so why VAR initiated a full review is perplexing. Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel, though. was left confused and frustrated.
VAR RATING: 6/10 The referee was strong to correctly stick to his original decision, but there should never have been a review.
Monday, June 25: Iran vs. Portugal
VAR did not have its greatest game. First, five minutes after half-time, Cristiano Ronaldo went down in the box under a challenge from Saeid Ezatolahi. Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres reviewed the incident and gave the penalty, which was saved by Alireza Beiranvand. While there was definitely contact between Ronaldo and Ezatolahi, it was minimal.
VAR RATING: 6/10 Was it a "clear and obvious error"? There is little difference between this and the penalty Marcus Berg did not get -- and which was not reviewed -- for Sweden against Germany. So consistency is an issue. Many will agree with the change of decision, but it would not be reviewed in other circumstance. Down, initially, to the opinion of the VAR of course. It also meant there had been more penalties awarded in the 2018 World Cup in Russia than in any previous edition.
Later, play seemed to be stopped for an age when Ronaldo caught Morteza Pouraliganji with an arm. VAR told Caceres to view it on his screen and watch it he did, time and again. It's questionable whether the incident should have been reviewed, and it took far too long to reject the red card and book Ronaldo (as the referee is allowed to). Peter Walton, a former English Premier League referee, thinks Cristiano Ronaldo should have been sent off -- but VAR should not have intervened. This all came after Iran coach Carlos Queiroz criticised the VAR system the day before the game, and he later said the system failed on the Ronaldo red card review.
VAR RATING: 6/10 The correct decision was probably made but the length of time was too long. That alone should tell the referee that nothing is "clear and obvious."
In second-half added time came the decision that cost Portugal top spot in the group. The ball hit Cedric Soares' arm from point-blank range and there was literally nothing he could do about it. The penalty Denmark's Yussuf Poulsen conceded vs. Australia was questionable, but this seemed on another level.
VAR RATING: 2/10 It only gets that high a mark because at least the ball did hit Cedric's arm. But this is not the sort of decision VAR should be changing. VAR should be fixing obvious mistakes and injusticies, this simple cannot be considered as such.
Spain vs. Morocco
Iago Aspas scored in the 91st minute to bring Spain back on level terms at 2-2. As soon as the ball hit the back of the net the linesman put his flag up for offside, as per protocol. Immediately, VAR looked at the incident and the calibrated lines showed that Morocco's Mbark Boussoufa played Aspas onside with his back foot. Morocco midfielder Younes Belhanda claimed VAR "is just [to help the] big teams" after the game, but the fact is Aspas was onside. That said, VAR worked against Morocco on several occasions during the tournament.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Remember the furore over the disallowed Iran goal vs. Spain? This is exactly what would have happened if that Iran player had been onside despite the offside flag going up. This is what VAR should be used for.
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt
This was a first as the referee rejected the chance to reverse a penalty award after reviewing on his pitch-side monitor. Ali Gabr of Saudi Arabia was adjudged to have pushed Fahad Al-Muwallad over inside the area and referee Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot.
VAR's initial review led to Roldan taking a look himself, and after what seemed like an age in discussion with the officials in the control-room he stayed with his original decision.
Two different camera angles gave a very different impression, but there seemed very little in the contact from Gabr. The VAR official clearly felt it was suspect but Roldan -- the referee who coincidentally didn't give anything for the grappling on England's Harry Kane vs. Tunisia -- rejected that.
VAR RATING: 4/10 This again shows that VAR will still be all about opinions, but the only one that matters is that of the referee, who clearly did not feel he had made a "clear and obvious error." But this review took far, far too long and there should have been more than enough doubt to cancel the penalty.Sunday, June 24: England vs. Panama
Harry Kane completed his hat trick when Ruben Loftus-Cheek's shot hit his heel and flew into the back of the net. There was an immediate VAR check, and then a review, for offside against the striker. On first replay it looked like Kane was offside, but once the enhanced pictures with calibrated lines were shown it was clear that Gabriel Gomez's heel had played him onside.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Fine example of a review which has fine margins but correct calibrated lines conclusively prove onside.
Saturday, June 23: Germany vs. Sweden
Marcus Berg was through on goal and appeared all set to pull the trigger when Jerome Boateng made contact from the side. This caused Berg to lose his stride slightly and the ball ran through to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
Referee Szymon Marciniak -- who denied Argentina's Cristian Pavon a penalty against Iceland -- waved away the penalty appeals. While Boateng and Berg definitely came together, was it a "clear and obvious error"? It doesn't seem completely clear-cut and as such it's no surprise there was no VAR review. Boateng using his body strength does not immediately mean a penalty.
VAR RATING: 7/10 Doesn't get a higher rating as there remains uncertainty about what constitutes a "clear and obvious error."
Friday, June 22: Brazil vs. Costa Rica
Neymar went down under a challenge from Giancarlo Gonzalez, falling backwards when the defender's arm was on his chest, and referee Bjorn Kuipers immediately pointed to the spot. The VAR advised the referee to take another look at the incident and he overturned his decision, though didn't book Neymar for a dive. It was the first time VAR overturned a penalty at the World Cup.
VAR RATING: 10/10 - Perfection again here in overturning the penalty. The contact on Neymar from Gonzalez's arm was minimal and should not have made the Brazilian go down as he did. But neither was it a dive, so the referee was correct not to book him.
Serbia vs. Switzerland
If the Harry Kane incidents vs. Tunisia raised an eyebrow, this arched up both of them. With the score at 1-1, Aleksandar Mitrovic appeared to be held down in the box by both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schar when a cross came in but referee Felix Brych gave a foul against the Serbia striker. Replays suggest Mitrovic had an elbow in the face of Schar, and as already explained fouls by both teams at the same time will neutralise any review.
There was a technical reason for VAR not to go to full review, but to the average fan this is not obvious and it looks like an error.
VAR RATING: 3/10 It gets a three as there is at least a reason why there was no official review (though remember VAR checks everything), but the continuing failure to penalise holding in the box is only going to see it increase. If Mitrovic had his elbow in Schar's face it was surely only a bi-product of being man-handled by two opponents. This should have been reviewed and a penalty awarded. Serbia eventually lost to a late goal, too.
Nigeria vs. Iceland
Iceland were handed a route back into the game when Tyronne Ebuehi caught Alfred Finnbogason in the corner of the box. Initially referee Matthew Conger waved away the penalty claim from the striker but after a short delay VAR instructed him to take another look and the spot kick was given. Gylfi Sigurdsson blazed it way off target.
VAR RATING 9/10 Took a little longer than it should have done and the match referee didn't seem to be given the most conclusive angle to watch, but the correct decision was reached.
Thursday, June 21: Denmark v Australia
Australia were given their second penalty of the World Cup when Mathew Leckie's header was blocked by arm of Yussuf Poulsen. Denmark counterattacked, with VAR asking Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz to take a second look once the ball went out of play. And Lahoz had no hesitation in pointing to the spot after a quick pitchside review. Denmark's Christian Eriksen described the penalty awarded to Australia as "lucky."
VAR RATING: 7/10 Protocol was followed correctly, but was it 100 percent a penalty? A "clear and obvious" error? It was probably borderline and Poulsen a little unlucky even though he had his arm high in the air when it was hit by the ball. He appeared to have turned away too. Certainly not a penalty everyone will agree with.
France vs. Peru
We had our first yellow card changed due to a case of mistaken identity -- one of the remits of VAR. Referee Mohammed Mohammed Abdulla initially booked Peru's Edison Flores in the 81st minute. That was correctly changed to Pedro Aquino after VAR told the referee that he was the player who had fouled Nabil Fekir.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Perfectly executed
Wednesday, June 20: Iran v Spain
The Iran "equaliser" caused a huge outcry about VAR on social media and among journalists, yet this was VAR at its finest. The only confusion here was caused by Iran running away and celebrating. But let's be clear, what happened is no different to a team in the Premier League or La Liga scoring a goal and celebrating without realising the flag had gone up.
From a free kick, the ball was flicked on by an Iran teammate and it then hit Saeid Ezatolahi, who was in an offside position. As this was a close attacking move in the area, and the linesman could not be sure an Iranian player nodded the ball on, the flag stayed down initially. But as soon as Ezatolahi fired the loose ball into the back of the net, the linesman raised his flag.
Therefore, there was no goal. It was disallowed instantly and the referee stood with his arm raised to indicate an indirect free kick. VAR only got involved to check offside was the correct decision. If there had been an error, VAR would actually have given the goal to Iran. It did not take it away. Earlier in the day FIFA said it had been "extremely satisfied" and said the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) had been a success.
VAR RATING: 10/10 The linesman allowed the attacking play to complete before correctly ruling out the goal, a decision that was ratified by VAR.
Portugal v Morocco
Cristiano Ronaldo went down theatrically under a tackle in box from Nordin Amrabat in the 85th minute. Ronaldo screamed for the penalty, even making the TV sign for a review. While there did seem to be at least some contact, Ronaldo threw himself to the ground well after this point and was definitely looking for the penalty.
There was not enough in it to consider a "clear and obvious error." We have also seen increasing instances of the TV sign being made by players and coaching staff and it could be time to make a point and book players, as was threatened by FIFA pre-tournament.
Ronaldo could not be booked for diving as this can only happen when a penalty award is overturned.
VAR RATING: 9/10 Correct decision, but time to get the yellow card out.
Tuesday, June 19: Russia vs. Egypt
Mohamed Salah was brought down and referee Enrique Caceres gave a free kick on the edge of the box. The VAR intervened and instructed the referee to give a penalty as the foul continued into the area. The VAR makes all factual (not subjective) decisions relating to where an offence has taken place (in or out of the area, offside etc.), which is why the referee did not have to view the incident himself on the pitchside screen.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Exactly as the system should work.
Monday, June 18: England vs. Tunisia
There were three major incidents in this game. The first came when Kyle Walker caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with his arm. The side-on angle was particularly damning for the Manchester City defender, who appeared to throw his arm back. It was not an incident that could have been considered a "clear and obvious error," so VAR was correct to allow the penalty as given.
Then Harry Kane had two penalty claims. The main issue here is that while the incidents were reviewed, again no one actually knows why VAR came to the decision to not advise reviews for penalties. Kane definitely appeared to be fouled on both occasions, but match referee Wilmar Roldan was not directed to take a second look.
One explanation is that John Stones had pushed Ellyes Skhiri just before Ferjani Sassi pulled down Kane -- and that would rule out the review. On the second incident, Kane looked like he could have been holding Yassine Meriah's arm before the Tunisian fell on top of him. But the true reasoning is unclear on both.
VAR RATING: 2/10 There could be valid reasons why England were not awarded penalties, but this is completely unclear to those watching.
Sweden vs. South Korea
Much like the foul on Cueva of Peru, this was a definite error by referee Joel Aguilar after Kim Min-Woo's rash challenge on Viktor Claesson. What was surprising is the VAR instructed Aguilar to stop play while South Korea were on the counterattack. VAR protocol says that play should only be stopped when in a neutral area or when the ball has gone out of play so as not to penalise the opposition if their attack breaks down unnecessarily.
Play being stopped suddenly means the VAR must have known it was a definite penalty. In other leagues holding trials, the VAR would just give a penalty rather that indicate a pitchside review, but FIFA wants all subjective decisions at the World Cup to be watched by the on-pitch referee.
For the record, if play had carried on and South Korea had scored, that goal would have been wiped out following the VAR review and the penalty awarded to Sweden as the first incident. Sweden coach Janne Andersson thought the use of VAR was unnecessary as the referee should have given the penalty at the time.
VAR RATING: 7/10 Stopping an opposition attack for a pitchside review is not protocol. So while the decision was ultimately correct, VAR didn't quite get to it in the correct way.
Sunday, June 17: Costa Rica vs. Serbia
Late in the game, there was a red-card review against Serbia's Aleksandar Prijovic for putting his hand in an opponent's face. Some questioned why Prijovic was shown a yellow card when only red-card incidents are reviewed. While yellow-card incidents cannot be reviewed, referee Malang Diedhiou was within his rights to caution a player following a red-card review.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Protocol was observed.
Brazil vs. Switzerland
Switzerland equalised when Steven Zuber scored, but replays suggested he gave Miranda a small push in the back. As with Pavon, the VAR decided not to review to referee Cesar Arturo Ramos. This was again surprising as there must have been a good chance he might have disallowed the goal. Brazil also felt Gabriel Jesus should have been awarded a penalty for grappling in the box and have asked FIFA to explain both decisions.
VAR RATING: 7/10 The push by Zuber was not a strong one, but many feel it should at least have been sent back to the referee. Protocol on the possible red card, and subsequent yellow, was correct.
Saturday, June 16: France vs. Australia
The opening two days were quiet and VAR went unnoticed, but it finally came to fore in Kazan.
Antoine Griezmann was through on goal when he went down under a challenge from Joshua Risdon. VAR indicated to the referee that he should review the incident, and history was made when a penalty was awarded.
Contact was minimal, leading some to question whether it was a "clear and obvious error." All that matters is what referee Andres Cunha believed after viewing the TV replay, and he clearly felt he had made a "clear and obvious error." Penalty to France, and Risdon booked for the foul.
VAR RATING: 7/10 Ultimately VAR got the decision correct, but not everyone would agree it was a "clear and obvious error."
Argentina vs. Iceland
Cristian Pavon went down in the box under contact from Birkir Saevarsson. However, play continued without an official review.
A foul is a subjective decision and that means one referee will have a slightly different opinion from another. And that also applies to the VARs -- one may think an incident should be reviewed and another may not. In this instance, and many more we will see from this point, the opinion of the VAR was not to review with match referee Szymon Marciniak even though many watching on television felt it should have been. This creates a lack of clarity among supporters.
VAR RATING: 2/10 It wasn't a stonewall penalty, but it certainly should have been sent to the referee to view himself. Many would say it was a clearer penalty than that given to France.
Peru vs. Denmark
Another penalty was awarded when Yussuf Poulsen brought down Peru's Christian Cueva. It was a clear penalty and only a surprise that referee Bakary Gassama didn't award the spot kick himself initially. But of course, this is exactly what VAR is there for. Play was correctly stopped with the ball in a neutral area.
VAR RATING: 10/10 Perfectly administered.
Dale Johnson has been an editor and journalist at ESPN for 18 years. You can follow him on Twitter @dalejohnsonESPN.