KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —– Football’s lawmakers risk turning the World Cup finals in Russia into a VAR variety show if they approve use of a video referee for the finals in June and July.
This is not to denigrate a will to improve refereeing decisions in the wholly laudable interests of fair play. Across the game the consensus concerning the concept is positive after ongoing trials over the past two years.
However, issues of consistency in application, time-lag and – most important – communication to players, officials and fans all need more time and consideration.
The danger is that repeated VAR controversy will overshadow the football at the World Cup, especially because many of the referees will not have experienced its use at high-pressure elite level.
Teething problems were inevitable. This is why trials have been approved around the world. But the trials have proved – including in major domestic competitions with some of the game’s most experienced referees in Germany and Italy and lately England – that much more work is needed.
The abject failure of the game’s administrators to bring fans onboard has been depressingly redolent of the anti-transparency culture at the top of world football.
The World Cup should not be a laboratory for theoreticians.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has pushed the cause of VAR in Russia almost ever since he was elected in the spring of 2016. Maybe even he should pause for reflection. He would have cause.
The World Cup generates more than 90pc of all FIFA’s income. Hence the credibility of the World Cup is crucial to both FIFA and on down to the majority of small and medium-size member associations which depend on its development largesse.
A week ago the business meeting of the lawmaking International Football Association Board refrained from recommending the annual meeting in March to approve VAR for use worldwide.
Instead it approved updated and refined instructions for both on-pitch and off-pitch referees. This was hardly a gesture of confidence despite a “thorough . . . positive and encouraging” application in more than 800 competitive matches around the world.
The stated objective of VAR is not to achieve 100pc accuracy but “to correct ‘clear and obvious errors’ and deal with ‘serious missed incidents’ in defined match-changing situations (goal, penalty/no penalty, direct red card and mistaken identity for disciplinary sanctions).”
IFAB comprises the four British home nations and FIFA. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have one vote each and FIFA has four. A positive decision in March would need a minimum of six votes (though it is customary to seek a consensus ahead of a vote).
Home nations’ role
It would be surprising if Infantino retreated on VAR in Russia. Hence responsibility for saying Yes or No rests with the home nations.
In individual terms this means their chief executives: Martin Glenn (England), Patrick Nelson (Northern Ireland), Stewart Regan (Scotland) and Jonathan Ford (Wales).
Eight years ago, in South Africa, this writer sat at the hastily-convened media round table the morning after the ‘phantom goal’ night before. Then-president Sepp Blatter, hitherto an opponent of technology in football, changed his tune, saying: “The world is laughing at us.”
FIFA is in enough trouble as it is. To risk a VAR own goal with the world watching makes no sense. No doubt: VAR is the future and a perfected version will certainly be in place in Qatar in 2022.
But Russia 2018 is another matter.