A revisit to the VAR concept and its application (Part 2)

A revisit to the VAR concept and its application (Part 2)

This is the a bit delayed sequel to “A revisit to the VAR concept and its application (part 1)." In that first part, I have pointed out that whether you like it or not, the VAR system is with us to stay, so let us try to enjoy it as much as possible because we cannot avoid it. It is the offspring of industrialized soccer that some of you might not like. We have discussed the first two of the four areas where we can develop the concept and the application of VAR.

The first is TIME. We must give the concept and its application some time to mature and be standardized across the world. The second one is the HUMAN RESOURCES utilizing the concept and its application. It is difficult to find enough number of referees of comparable quality and experience to “man” the six officials  of a game -- and in some cases even more is needed -- especially in leagues where you have multiple games in one day. That disparity in quality and experience between the referee and VAR/AVAR might cause problems in standardizing the concept. Also, I recommended that one day we might have to create a new category of officials that specializes in being a VAR or AVAR, just like Assistant Referees.

The next two areas in which we can develop the concept and the application of VAR are MODIFYING REVIEWABLE MATCH CHANGING DECISIONS/INCIDENTS and IMPROVEMENTS IN THE PROCEDURES.

While deliberating on what to include in those categories in the weeks that passed, I have realized that the reaction and antagonism that developed for the concept, was the result of false expectations created by the poor PR campaign that was used to introduce the concept. This was amplified by the wavering of the On the Field Review (OFR) applications and the misunderstanding of what a clear and obvious error was between different leagues and even between different time frames in a single league.

The video reviews in other sports relied heavily on objective decisions that can easily and without too much argument be changed or confirmed with a replay. So soccer spectators who are especially familiar with video replay expected a smooth application. On the other hand, for die-hard soccer fans, they expected every decision which looks grayish and is covered by the protocol to be overturned or confirmed in their team’s favor.

As long as the subjective decisions are in the domain of the VAR protocol, TIME will be the only remedy to minimize discussions of those decisions. If federations and leagues have done a proper job of presenting the VAR concept to the soccer public without creating false expectations that there will not be any more discussions on decisions changing the outcome of the game, then still we would have opposition to the concept but at a smaller scale. I read so many comments in the social media and even sometimes by sportswriters or coaches asking the question of why VAR did not intervene, it is clear to me that the basic concept of ”minimal interference, maximum benefit” while identifying “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” is not still well understood by the soccer world.


The VAR protocol is in its eighth version (2017) but clarifications and modifications are annually done by IFAB.

According to the protocol, these are the areas in which VAR can intervene:

    • Goals
    • Penalty/no penalty decisions
    • Direct red cards (not 2nd yellow cards)
    • Mistaken identity

Misapplication of the Laws of the Game (LOTG) are also included if they are misapplied in the above domain.

I believe there are two areas that should be included in the domain as well as any misapplication of the LOTG that might result in the game to be replayed.

The first one is mentioned in the Protocol: The second yellow card. IFAB decided to not include the second yellow card in the domain of the protocol. The protocol explains the justification of not including the 2nd yellow card by:

“If a 2nd YC could be reviewed there would be a strong argument for the 1st YC to be reviewed. This would then require every YC to be reviewed which would logically mean that every potential YC incident would be have to be reviewed, including when a referee, possibly wrongly, does not issue a YC – this would result in far too many interruptions to the game (e.g. the 2016 Euro final had 10 YCs and a number of other possible YC situations).”

Although the justification is very sound, I personally believe that a red card is a very important game-changing decision, so any time a red card is issued for a second yellow card and the second yellow card is not justifiable then the VAR should intervene. Let us not forget that referees are advised to make sure that the second yellow card is a black and white decision and not a decision to be questioned. This change does not include if a review for any yellow card but rather that the VAR sees it as not justifiable resulting in a send-off.

The second area is indirect-free kicks against the goalkeeper in the penalty area. Although rare, these are well defined infringements that might be a game changer.  It is far more dangerous than a direct free kick outside the penalty area. The most common application is what is erroneously called the “back pass.” One can argue that if that is the case then all free-kicks “close” to the penalty area against the defense should be reviewed. They would give the example of the direct free kick awarded against Croatia that resulted with the first goal in the final game of the World Cup 2018. Everybody agreed that the foul penalized with a direct free kick was very questionable. The problem is, what is “close” to the penalty area? That cannot be objectively stated, but “in the penalty area” is a very well defined definition. Also an indirect free kick awarded against the goalkeeper inside the penalty area is extremely rare in the professional game but it might have serious consequences.

The last final area where we can develop the concept and the application of VAR is IMPROVEMENTS IN THE PROCEDURES.

The philosophy of the VAR system is "minimum interference–maximum benefit." One of the major criticisms of the system is that at times it becomes too picky and at times too time-consuming. Neither was intended by the VAR system. I have approached one of the criticisms of the system being of very picky and very time-consuming with offside decisions in one of my earlier articles. The solution to this problem is excluding the software for drawing lines for offside decisions from the process. Use the approach taken by MLS and decide when the ball is kicked whether the player is in offside position by freezing the frame as the ball is kicked. If the decision is clearly and obviously not wrong without the line drawn by software support the decision on the field. The solution is that simple and fast. Football does not expect somebody to be penalized for being an inch in an offside position.

The other problematic area is with subjective decisions. In the game between Barcelona and Napoli in the Champions League round of 16 refereed by Cuneyt Cakir, a goal scored by Lionel Messi in the first half was ruled out after a lengthy review by VAR for a handball infraction by Messi. Nobody on the field or elsewhere expected that goal to be disallowed. The officials had to put the incident under the “microscope” to see the “accidental” contact between Messi’s hand and the ball. This is not what football expects. The VAR system was not designed for this kind of meticulous and time-consuming decision making process.

Referees do make match critical mistakes mostly due to their positioning. The VAR system gives the opportunity through the VAR official to view the incident from different angles. If the VAR official by looking through different camera angles sees a clear and obvious infraction that the referee did not see, then the protocol should be enforced. Although the protocol generally defines when to use slow motion, slow motion should only be used for objective decisions. Otherwise, it slows down the decision-making process and comes out with infractions that only one can see through the lens of a microscope like in the above-mentioned game. That is not in line with philosophy of the VAR protocol.

I hope this is the last article I will write about the VAR system in the months to come, because it is here to stay with us.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.