It’s World Cup time again! It hardly seems four years since we last talked about VAR, which was first formally introduced to the game in 2018 and used in the World Cup in Russia that year.
The least said about Russia right now, the better, but my perspective on VAR remains the same: it has added a new dimension to the competition and almost turned the game on its head. In all this, it continues to showcase – dare I say – the dramatic influence that technology can have on our lives.
From the Referee’s viewpoint, more information is available, meaning that Refs now have an opportunity to make a more informed decision. It doesn’t guarantee that the interpretation will always be correct, but it does put the spotlight on the detail and it does give the referee another very important and much-needed perspective.
The technology that’s used to watch, analyse and report on football matches has evolved significantly in the last decade or so. The attention on the detail of the game, the now-ubiquitous 4k picture quality, the bird’s eye reviews, the multiple camera angles, the player trackers and the slo-motion replays, to name but a few, play an important role in engaging the viewer, while at the same time sharing data and real-time stats with the TV crews, pundits & coaches. This evolution has also done more to highlight & analyse the errors and poor decisions made by officials. But until now, with the exception of goal-line technology, the use of technology to ‘assist the referee’ on the pitch has largely been held back.
While contending with the theatrics of the divers, the huggers and the Maradona’s of this world, referees are quite limited by what they can view and analyse in that split second. At tournaments, the importance of getting the decisions right and the influence of getting them wrong has a much greater impact on the overall competition. Think 1986, Argentina! Like its forerunner in 2018, this year’s World Cup will extend the influence on the players’ behaviour.
So what’s next?
Possibly more influence? Who knows? In the four years since the last implementation of VAR at a World Cup, we have seen technology continue to evolve. yet we predicted that more sophisticated tools would be made available to referees but so far that hasn’t really been the case. At this point, VAR remains the technology equivalent of low-hanging fruit. Perhaps AI will make an appearance before the 2026 tournament in North America.