FIFA Presses Forward with Replay Technology, and It Could Speed Up the Game
While referees in other sports have used video review for years, soccer had been slow to embrace replay technology. FIFA will begin testing Video Assistant Referees in 2017, and it could change the game in surprising ways.
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
On the evening of September 21, 2016, days after his 41st birthday, Pol van Boekel, a top-rated Dutch referee, sat in a van outside AFC Ajax's Amsterdam Arena. Ajax was about to take on Willem II, and van Boekel was nervous. It was his first day at a new job, and a lot of people were watching.
But van Boekel wouldn't enter the stadium for the match. Instead, he stayed inside the van, where a bank of TV screens showed footage from every broadcast camera on the pitch and allowed him to choose moments and angles for immediate playback. Van Boekel's task was to watch the match and advise the center referee on incorrect decisions he may have made—something that nobody in the Netherlands, and few people in the rest of the world, had ever done before, at least not in a competitive fixture. The match was one of the first live experiments sanctioned by FIFA to develop a system through which replay technology could enhance the job of traditional, on-field referees. Van Boekel's new job title? VAR, or Video Assistant Referee.
When the match kicked off, van Boekel was completely consumed by action. Whenever the ball rolled out of play or the ref blew his whistle, he checked replays. Play after play, he rewound the video to watch again, first from one angle, then another. Had there been a handball? Should that have been a penalty? There was no downtime. He would later find himself, after 90 minutes of unflinching focus, completely exhausted.
"It was a very difficult match," van Boekel remembers.
The first half was full of close offside calls, but none of them required van Boekel's intervention. Then, in the 60th minute, Lasse Schone, an Ajax midfielder, received a pass inside his own half. Anouar Kali, a Willem II midfielder, closed down on him and lunged for the ball. Kali missed, catching Schone with his outstretched leg.
Danny Makkelie, the head referee, blew his whistle and produced a yellow card, and while the players protested and Schone inspected his ankle, van Boekel replayed the incident in the van. Then he watched it again. He saw that Kali hadn't just mistimed his tackle; his studs were up, and he'd plunged them into Schone's leg—a clear case of endangering an opponent.
"Danny," van Boekel said into his wireless headset. "For me, 100 percent red card."
"Are you sure?"
Makkelie turned again to Kali.
Only 17 seconds had elapsed between the foul and the red card.
Should video replay exist in soccer? For years, the question tugged at FIFA and the International Football Association Board. (Little known to most soccer fans, IFAB is the organization that develops rules in soccer. You can think of it as the R&D wing of FIFA, but two are actually separate organizations, and both need to ratify proposed rules for them to become official.) Although most other major sports—American football, basketball, hockey, rugby—use replay technology, in some cases for decades now, the idea so divided the soccer community that, until 2014, decision-makers at FIFA and IFAB refused to consider it seriously.
Officials split into two camps. Those in favor of video technology wanted to see officiating improve. Referee mistakes, they felt, cast a shadow over the game. Those opposed to the technology, a group predominantly made up of old-timers, felt officiating mistakes were part of the game's appeal. In their view, there was beauty in the fallibility of refs. What the two camps agreed on was that replays might slow the speed of the game. Nobody wanted long, NFL-style pauses as referees scrutinized tape.
Two high-profile incidents contributed to FIFA's change in heart, and both were related to the 2010 World Cup.
First, in 2009, the Republic of Ireland played France in a home-and-away World Cup qualifying playoff. The winner would go to the finals in South Africa. France won the opening leg in Dublin, 1-0. In the return match, in Paris, Robbie Keane scored in the 33rd minute, tying the series on aggregate. The match went into extra time. In the 103rd minute, a free kick found Thierry Henry in the box. With a subtle raised hand near his chest, Henry stopped the ball just as it was going out of bounds. It fell to his feet, and he passed it to William Gallas, who scored the winner. Irish fans and players were dismayed. But the real shock to FIFA didn't occur until after the game, when Henry admitted he'd intentionally used his arm. The referee and his assistants didn't see it.
The second was Frank Lampard's high-profile (non-)goal that occurred in England's 2010 World Cup match against Germany. Lampard's shot came off the crossbar, and the ball had so much spin it bounced out of the goal. The referee waved away England's protests as replays showed the ball crossing the line to hundreds of millions of fans around the world.
The following year, FIFA and IFAB began testing goal-line technology—which uses cameras or magnetic fields to track whether the ball crosses the goal line—and both organizations officially sanctioned its use in 2012. Now that the incident in the England-Germany match would never happen at that level again, the question became: Why not use video to avoid a repeat of the France-Ireland match, too?
In 2013, the Dutch soccer federation (the KNVB) began researching the feasibility of using video replay technology in soccer. The KNVB shared its preliminary findings with IFAB and FIFA, and at the 2014 FIFA Congress, FIFA began seriously discussing the use of video replay.
Following the Congress, representatives studied how replay was used in other sports, and consulted the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and Rugby Union. What FIFA and IFAB officials didn't know at the time was that Major League Soccer was also working on the issue.
In 2014, MLS hired independent researchers to assess matches in three different markets. The research was nonintrusive. "They just charted when the referee blew the whistle, how many reviews came on [TV] between the time he made the decision, and when he restarted play, and when restart of play occurred," says Jeff Agoos, MLS's vice-president of competition.
Like officials at FIFA and IFAB, Agoos' primary concern was whether the replays occurred fast enough to be viewed in the downtime between calls. MLS was focused on four kinds of "game deciding" incidents, all of which are typically followed by a break in play, either due to players protesting or celebrating: penalty kicks, red cards, goals, and denial of a goal-scoring opportunity (think handball blocking a shot). The analysis found that pauses following these incidents lasted, on average, from 60 to 90 seconds, depending on the type of infraction. It took just 15 to 25 seconds for the video review.
"We felt like there was plenty of time," Agoos says.
MLS shared its findings at the beginning of 2016, and armed with Dutch and American data, IFAB refined its Video Assistant Referee protocol. In addition to the game-deciding incidents Agoos looked at in MLS, IFAB's protocol added "mistaken identity," so VARs also ensure referees don't accidentally caution the wrong player.
The VARs are accompanied by a technician who helps bring up replays. According to the protocol, VARs are only allowed to view the camera angles available to match broadcasters, which helps with transparency, and they can only intervene in the case of a clear error by the referee. After intervention, it remains the center referee's prerogative whether to follow the VAR's advice or not.
Beginning next year, IFAB and FIFA will launch a testing phase in 15 league or cup competitions around the world, including MLS and the Dutch Cup. In 2018, IFAB will review the tests and vote on whether or not to change the rules.
Like van Boekel's live experiment in Holland, MLS has run several experiments in competitive matches in the United Soccer League, where MLS reserve teams play. The Dutch and the Americans don't, however, run things the exact same way.
MLS uses IFAB's protocol in its complete form, meaning the central referee has the option of looking at the replay footage on a tablet after the VAR makes a recommendation. The Dutch don't have tablets or any other viewing device for the referee, so he must make a decision solely based on the VAR's description of the replay. The Dutch model is faster, but it arguably removes some authority from the referee, which is a concern for FIFA and IFAB.
"The first decision in a game should always come from the referee himself," says Johannes Holzmueller, FIFA's head of technology innovation. "It's not that the machine [is changing a call] or something like that."
It's a reasonable stance, but early feedback from the Dutch suggests that the existence of a VAR might enhance rather than undermine the referee's authority.
The day after van Boekel's stint in the van, he and Danny Makkelie switched positions; van Boekel refereed Feyenoord-FC Oss, while Makkelie was the VAR. At one point, there was a potential penalty, which van Boekel waved off. The ball went out for a corner kick. The players knew there was a VAR, and rather than protest, they waited for van Boekel to receive an update from Makkelie. About four seconds passed. Makkelie confirmed it wasn't a penalty, and they went to take a corner.
For van Boekel, the experience was amazing. Normally, the victim of a perceived penalty would have cursed him, and his teammates would have begged him to reconsider. But this time, he says, "the player who was the victim of the penalty kick, he was looking at me until I gave the signal and said it was a corner kick. He accepted it and walked away. No protest, nothing."
It's still early, but in a twist of irony, as van Boekel's experience shows, VARs might actually speed up the game rather than slow it down. If players know they're being watched via replay, there is less incentive to protest or flop. In fact, it might become more dangerous to flop for a penalty. If the referee blows his whistle only to be informed by the VAR that the player is faking it, the ref would have to show him a card.
There are still some kinks to work out, like figuring out the most cost-effective way to implement and support VARs (house them in a van or in a central hub?), and the protocol is likely to be tweaked as the testing begins. But everyone with whom I spoke seemed optimistic that VARs would eventually become part of the professional game. For many, the project was a long time coming.
"What we're doing is trying to provide another tool to the referee to get decisions right," says Mike van der Roest, assistant of technical affairs at the Dutch federation. "It seems odd that the fans in a stadium have more information than a referee. We have the technology to provide information to our officials and just choose not to do it because that's the way it's always been done. I think we need to move the game forward, and if we can provide critical information to game-changing situations to improve our game, I don't see why we shouldn't do that."
Van Boekel, too, is optimistic the program will succeed. "I think it can help me as a ref, because when you miss a red card, or you miss a penalty, maybe the day after you're on the front page of the newspaper," he says. "Now it can help me avoid that kind of problem."
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