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FIFA Must Open Eyes To VAR Or Risk Own Goal

The introduction of VAR at The World Cup is a great idea – but it will become a spectacular own goal unless FIFA open their eyes and learn quickly.

It is almost impossible to fathom how VAR did not spectacularly prove it’s worth during England’s WWF, sorry World Cup opener with Tunisia.

Aside from the breathtaking spear tackle that floored Harry Kane, there was more pulling on display inside the Volgograd Arena, Volgograd than the villa hosting ITV’s Love Island.

And yet, the match officials and the watching army of VAR officials in the monster TV truck were either victims of some Jedi mind-trick or Arsene Wenger coaching, as they apparently saw nothing. Nothing!

Twice Kane was bundled to the floor by goalscorer Ferjani Sassi and then Yassine Meriah in penalty claims so obvious, you started to wonder whether we were watching the 2018 edition of Rio Ferdinand’s ‘hilarious’ ‘Rio’s World Cup wind-ups.’

Colombian official Wilmar Roldan waved both incidents away when, forgetting VAR for a minute, he was perfectly positioned to see both incidents unfold before him. Yet he deemed the challenges perfectly reasonable. Really??

In fact, the number of rugby tackles and holds usually reserved for WWF performed by Tunisia during England’s World Cup opener was almost beyond belief.

And yet, there they were, right before our eyes. Everyone’s eyes except the referee and the van full of VAR officials led by Video Assistant Referee Sandro Ricci in a TV truck filled with screens.

Foul

It was claimed afterwards that both incidents had been considered by the VAR officials but, not enforced on the basis that John Stones may have committed a foul in the build-up.

Really? How interesting? In fact, it is alleged that the VAR decided to do nothing as the incidents evened it up.

Err….excuse me. VAR is to assist the referee so, if the officials did decide John Stones fouled in the build-up to Harry Kane’s brutal flooring the referee, having received such information, should have awarded Tunisia a free-kick.

It should actually have been VAR and FIFA’s crowning glory. Proof that VAR can spot, and therefore improve the nonsense that we see at so many free-kicks and corners where defenders don’t even look at the ball anymore.

Had a free-kick been awarded to Tunisia, or more likely a penalty or three to England,  every player at this World Cup would have received a very serious and obvious message: Big brother is watching and will act.

Yet, it feels a lot like the ‘Stones excuse’ provided VAR with a ‘get-out-jail’ card for a blatant break down in the system.

I am still struggling to comprehend how Roldan didn’t deal with the situation immediately by blowing for the obvious foul. Even if VAR had then overruled him by highlighting the phantom Stones offence.

VAR is supposed to assist match officials – by providing feedback that could have been missed in a frenzied run of play, or an angle obscured by flying bodies blocking the referee’s view.

It was always going to be controversial. And of course, there are always teething problems with new technology, particularly when used at such significant sporting events.

But. And this is a big but. VAR is not new. Not even close. Rugby, tennis, cricket and the NFL have all successfully used TMO for a number of years.

Rugby

In fact, Rugby Union introduced the TMO – or Television Match Official during the 2015 Rugby World Cup and, whilst it was not initially easy, it has proved to be a success.

Ok, Wales Rugby Union fans will disagree presently. They are still smarting from this season’s Six Nations clash with England, and rightly so.

Then a VAR mistake denied them a clear try which could have had a huge say in the outcome of the match.

But, that momentous mistake aside, rugby union has embraced VAR and, with conversations between referee and TMO broadcast the fans are kept up-to-speed with decisions.

It has not been easy. There were 132 decisions sent upstairs during that first rugby union World Cup and matches were, slightly longer than usual. Some even said the play was disjointed at first. And it was.

But, the officials learned incredibly quickly as to how best to use it and, thanks to the teamwork between the referee on the pitch and the TMO, the pair are able to work together to get decisions right.

The role of the TMO is restricted to two crucial areas; the scoring of a try and possible foul play.

Generally, the referee will ask the TMO to check, for example, if in the scoring of a try the ball was ground, or ‘was there a knock-on’ or simply ‘is there any reason NOT to award the try.’

The point here is the referee is still refereeing the game, he or she is simply asking for a second pair of eyes. Not a truck full of eyes. The TMO does not have to be dressed as a mini-me for the cameras. And the communication is two-way and direct.

The TMO might also confirm where a kick travelled between the posts or be asked to check other specific issues in the build-up to a potential score.

However, the TMO can also communicate with the referee at any time they suspect foul play. And vice versa, the referee can ask the TMO immediately to check an issue even as the game continues.

I guess my main point here is, having listened to countless conversations between the referee and TMO is the fact that they are working together. The TMO knows, of the 20 TV camera angles which is most likely to provide the answer required because guess what, the TMO is watching the game too.

Exchange

Take the exchange below between referee Nigel Evans and TMO Derek Bevan during a Rhys Webb’s bonus point try may be awarded in the Ospreys v Cardiff Blues. It is like you listening to two old friends chatting……that’s because we are!

The pair of them know the game, know each other and understand what to look for. And Derek isn’t even wearing his rugby boots!

It doesn’t need a dozen full-kit fanboys in a TV truck to watch a gazillion replays before decided on a joint outcome. It needs a fellow referee in a TV truck with half a dozen screens. The TMO will be aware of the type of angle they are likely to offer and can select the screens deemed appropriate as and when.

And you know what, if the decision is not certain it shouldn’t be given. And that may mean that over time TV pundits, with the benefit of an hours worth of slow-mos and deliberation, will be able to highlight the one that got away.

In that instance. Who cares. We don’t want to make football a sport of mathematics and absolute precision. But we do want to make sure the match officials can get the major decisions right.

Fortunately, from an England perspective, the team were able to battle on and secure an incredibly well deserved victory thanks to a late winner from skipper Kane.

Now FIFA appears to have, not exactly admitted a mistake, but at least suggested they will now keep an eye of VAR, who in turn will watch the referee, who in turn will watch the game. And we will watch it all.

Watching them, watching us, a-ha!

Example of Rugby TMO

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