Video assistant referees: everything you need to know

VARs have been used in major European football leagues and international tournaments as part of an ongoing trial, but some players remain unconvinced

A video assistant referees, or VAR, is set to feature in an official game in the United Kingdom for the first time on Friday, as England host Germany in a friendly at Wembley. The system is already used in several high-profile leagues, but the ongoing trial has not gone totally smoothly. Here is the lowdown on football’s next big technological step:

OK, let’s start at the beginning. What is a VAR?

It’s a video assistant referee, a highly-trained match official who is watching the match concerned from the warmth of a room somewhere. They don’t have to be in, or even near, the stadium – all Bundesliga VARs, for instance, are based in one media centre in Cologne. They do still have to be able to communicate directly with the referee through two-way radio-type things.

So this is the end of error?

Far from it: decision-makers insist that football must forever retain its treasured sense of unfairness. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) – the body that makes rule-changing decisions in the sport – explains their aim is “not to achieve 100% accuracy for all decisions” but rather to swiftly remedy clear mistakes in match-changing situations – primarily penalties, goals and sendings-off. In every other area, the referee is free to foul up as frequently as he or she chooses.

How does a decision get made?

It starts with the referee asking the VAR to review an incident. The VARs can’t just review whatever they want, though if they spot something they think they ought to review they can ask the referee to ask them to review it. Once committed, the referee draws the outline of a TV screen in the air so everybody knows what’s going on and then waits to be told what to do (or sometimes goes to review a decision themselves on an off-pitch monitor).

Crikey. When did this happen?

Well, in fact it hasn’t happened yet. The IFAB voted in March 2016 to commence a trial lasting “a minimum of two years” before making a final decision on whether video officials will become a permanent fixture sometime in 2018 or 2019. This, then, is a period of wild experimentation.

Japanese players argue with referee Benoit Bastien after he awarded Brazil a penalty in Friday’s friendly, after checking with the video assistant referee.
Japanese players argue with referee Benoit Bastien after he awarded Brazil a penalty in Friday’s friendly, after checking with the video assistant referee. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Where can I find a VAR?

All over the place: Italy’s Serie A, the German Bundesliga, Major League Soccer in America, the Portuguese Primera Liga, the K League in South Korea and Australia’s A-League already use VARs for every league game. Poland and Belgium use it for selected high-profile matches, while in Holland it’s used in cup competitions. Over the summer, it was also used in the Confederations Cup in Russia and the Under-20 World Cup.

In England it will be used in some FA Cup matches this season, and in the Carabao Cup from the semi-final stage. Plus it is somewhat haphazardly used in occasional friendlies, such as England’s against Germany at Wembley. A decision on whether it will be used at the men’s World Cup finals in Russia next summer is expected in March.

Who likes it?

Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, is a powerful fan, having described himself as “extremely happy” with a system that is already “a great success” and “is the future of football”.

And who doesn’t?

Most players seem dubious. The legendary Juventus goalkeeper Gianlguigi Buffon thinks VARs are “making the game ugly” and “like we’re playing water polo”. In Australia the Perth Glory coach, Kenny Lowe, says VARs are “making a mockery of a lovely game”. The German midfielder Sami Khedira says: “At the moment it’s a disaster. It’s all a big jumble. The players do not know any more whether or not to celebrate after a goal. A lot of emotion and passion has been lost.”