The world's soccer governing body FIFA is currently phasing in a revolutionary video system designed to help referees confirm certain decisions during matches.
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) makes use of video footage of an ongoing soccer match that can be played back and then described or even shown to the referee to uphold or indeed reverse certain decisions.
It is expected that the International Football Association Board, which sets rules for soccer matches, will officially approve VAR in March -- with the intention of having it used at this year's World Cup in Russia from June.
In essence, VAR consists of assistant referees watching a soccer match via monitors, and then reviewing certain video footage whenever necessary to advise the referee on what decision to make. It can be used for decisions that relate to the following four cases: goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identity. Once the footage has been watched again, initial referee decisions can then be changed -- but only if the footage reveals that there has been a "clear error."
The Japan national team's first encounter with VAR was during a friendly against Brazil in November 2017, which Japan ended up losing 3-1. The system was used to confirm that defender Maya Yoshida, who plays for Southampton in the English Premier League, had in fact thrown down Brazilian player Fernandinho in the penalty area while defending a corner.
The video footage confirmed that this was the case -- prompting the referee to award a penalty to Brazil, which Neymar calmly side-footed past Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
The VAR technology used so far in soccer games has proved to be effective in clearing up questionable decisions such as those concerning offside goals or goals involving fouls. The human eye has its limits, and VAR is expected to play a major role in reducing the number of wrong decisions made by referees. However, there are also a few issues to consider.
Firstly, making judgments in soccer is something that is "subjective." So, bearing this in mind, the main referees and the assistant referees who use VAR need to make sure they are on the same page, in terms of their criteria for judging decisions.
Commenting on the penalty decision in the Japan versus Brazil match, Yoshimi Ogawa, chairman of the Japan Football Association's Referees Committee, says, "Looking at the whole picture, it can also be argued that Fernandinho committed a foul just before he was thrown to the ground. I assume that only footage of Yoshida's foul was shown to the main referee. In cases such as this, the final judgment hinges directly on the cut-off point of the footage."
Ultimately, the main referee on the pitch makes the final decision. However, as a veteran referee states: "If video footage is used, it is 30 percent more likely that a play looks like a foul. If the referee also watches the footage while his heart is racing, he is more likely to accept the advice of the VAR."
Other negative aspects of the system include the fact that stopping for a few minutes to confirm video footage hinders the rapid flow of soccer -- one of its charms. Moreover, it has been pointed out that referees might become preoccupied with VAR, and hence try to avoid making controversial decisions, thereby causing a drop in the quality of refereeing.
Ryuji Sato, who is currently undergoing FIFA VAR training as a candidate referee for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, has experience in using VAR at the U20 World Cup in 2017. He used it to change a decision the main referee made concerning an offside goal.
However, Sato says that, "There is a huge difference between blowing a whistle and VAR. One needs to be 100 percent confident when taking VAR advice and it's difficult because we're required to make a quick decision." Sato adds that from the standpoint of the main referee, "It can be highly effective if used properly. The system can be used to rectify decisive mistakes, however the excessive time it takes up and the unnecessary interference can also be seen as 'side effects.'"
Meanwhile, speaking on his foul against Fernandinho, Yoshida says, "I learned a lesson that day. I realized that that kind of contact can lead to a penalty."
In addition, a defender who plays for the Japan national team states candidly that, "If you are shorter or lighter than your opponent, then you can use certain 'tactics' such as bumping into him to stop him from jumping. If these kinds of incidents become scrutinized under VAR, then things will get complicated. Soccer, as we know it, could really start to change."
Nevertheless, the introduction of VAR across the globe is gathering speed. In the case of Japan, VAR training for referees will begin this year, with a view to introducing the system here in fiscal 2020. Referees need to quickly adjust to this new form of technology.