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What is VAR? The video assistant referee system’s World Cup & Premier League future

The use of video technology at the Confederations Cup was a major talking point and promises to remain so over the coming months

After years of calls for video technology to be implemented into football in order to help referees, we saw its first major rollout at this year’s Confederations Cup.

Far from eliminating debate around refereeing decisions, however, the new system resulted in more discussion and controversy over officiating than would be expected as normal.

Overall, there has been good and bad moments for VAR – as it has come to be known – and it is sure to continue to be a talking point during the coming months.

But what exactly is VAR, what is it designed to achieve and which leagues are adopting it? Here is all you need to know about a major change to the way football is officiated.


The basics

VAR stands for video assistant referee. It is actually a team of three people who work together to review certain decisions made by the main referee by watching video replays of the relevant incidents.

That team is comprised of the video assistant referee himself (who will be a current or former referee), his assistant and a replay operator. They are situated in a video operation room which is essentially a bank of monitors offering different camera angles.

Four types of decisions can be reviewed using VAR: goals (and violations in the build-up to them), penalties, red cards and mistaken identity in awarding a card. For a decision made on the pitch to be overturned, it must be a “clear error”.

The process for reviewing a decision can work in two ways; either the referee can request a review after making a decision or the VAR team can recommend one. In the latter situation, if the VAR judges that there is the potential for a clear error to have been made he or she can notify the referee.

The referee then has three options: they can immediately overturn the call based on the VAR’s advice, review the incident themselves on a monitor on the touchline or stick with their initial decision.

Current use of VAR

VAR is not currently written into the Laws of the Game, but is being tested in a number of leagues and tournaments around the world by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is responsible for those Laws.

It was first trialled in the United Soccer League in the United States during a match between two reserve teams of MLS clubs – New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B – in August of 2016. It has since been brought in by the A-League in Australia and MLS plans to implement it later this season.

In addition, FIFA has got a closer look at the system at a number of its international tournaments, such as this year’s Under-20 World Cup and Confederations Cup. A pitchside monitor was also used at last year’s Club World Cup, which was won by Real Madrid.


The current plan is that VAR will be used at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino is confident it will prove a positive addition to the tournament despite some of the criticism of its use at the Confederations Cup – more on that later – and reaffirmed his commitment to the system having seen it in action.


“Nothing is standing in the way of using VARs [at the World Cup], as far as I’m concerned,” Infantino said before the Confederations Cup final. “So far it has been successful. We are learning, we are improving, we are continuing the tests.”

He added: “Without the VARs, we would have had a different tournament. And a tournament which would have been a little less fair.”

Pierluigi Collina, the legendary referee who now heads up FIFA’s refereeing committee, is also happy. “We are in a sort of work in progress,” the Italian said. “We see the very positive result we had but we are aware that we can improve. This is normal.”


There has been no indication given that the Premier League plans to adopt VAR during the coming season, meaning 2018 – which marks the end of the two-year trial period IFAB is running – is the earliest we will see it in the English top flight.

Mike Riley, the head of the body in charge of Premier League officials, has revealed that VAR has already been trialled during league games – but in a non-live environment, meaning there has been no actual contact with the referee.

That would seem to suggest, at least, that the Premier League hierarchy do intend to introduce VAR should IFAB’s trials prove successful.

“IFAB have committed to experimenting for a minimum of two years and it’s important to use that time to identify the best way to use technology to benefit the game,” Riley told the Daily Mail in March.

“We have trialled using video assistant referees for a number of Premier League games so far this season. This has been in a non-live environment, which means there has been no contact with the match officials at the games. We will continue with these trials throughout the season.”

We could see VAR in English football next season in the EFL Cup or FA Cup, with both the Football League and the Football Association expressing an interest in running trials.

The German Bundesliga, meanwhile, plans to implement VAR from the start of the 2017-18 season.


Depends on who you ask.

FIFA and Infantino, as mentioned, have insisted the system – while imperfect – has been successful on the whole. They say that during the group stages, six “game-changing” decisions were made with the help of VAR in addition to another 29 “major incidents”.

Their position, as Infantino stated, is that the Confederations Cup would have been a different, and less fair, tournament without the reviews.

Certain players and coaches, however, have been less impressed. A common complaint has been the time taken to review decisions and the way that causes confusion and brings a halt to the play.

Another issue was that not every contentious decision would be selected for review. During Mexico’s third-place play-off against Portugal, for example, Pepe appeared to push Hector Moreno over in the box but despite the appeals of Mexico’s players and the replay being played on the stadium’s big screen, the game continued.

“Some plays, yes [they refer], and others no,” El Tri goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said. “They will have to find a fairer way.”

Then there is the simple fact that while VAR should help referees to make correct decisions, it does not guarantee them; calls are still made according to the officials’ judgment. That was an issue in the final, when Chile’s Gonzalo Jara appeared to elbow Germany’s Timo Werner in the face but was only shown a yellow card even after a review.

Former Premier League referee Mark Halsey asked on Twitter: “What on earth is going on with VAR? It’s a shambles. There is a protocol in place but officials are not adhering to it.”

“VAR will only work with factual decisions, not subjective ones,” pundit and ex-player Danny Higginbotham said. “Blatant red card but when based on a ref’s opinion, VAR pointless.”