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Is FIFA's video refereeing the right call?

I was just about to finish off a piece on the controversial use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system when the news came through about Sergio Ramos. 

Real Madrid v Kashima Antlers- FIFA Club World Cup Final Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Having been booked earlier in the final of the Club World Cup against Kashima Antlers, the bold Sergio then made contact with an opponent late on in the game and if we’re honest should have been issued a second yellow card. Inexplicably, the referee Janny Sikazwe from Zambia appeared to reach towards his pocket to brandish the red but apparently decided against it at the last minute!

It’s a good job the VAR system wasn’t used for the card count otherwise Sergio would have been off in a flash; incurring a suspension and leaving Madrid short at a vital stage in the game.

It just shows that in football you can’t legislate for human nature. No matter how high level or advanced the technology might be, human factors are always ready to throw out the best laid plans.

The referee’s decision came shortly after FIFA had admitted human error led to the controversy over Cristiano’s goal in the semi-final against Club América; with someone pressing the wrong switch by mistake. A mistake is a mistake at the best of times and for sure we all make them; but despite FIFA’s insistence that the use of such technology is the way forward in the future two simple human errors scuppered that way of thinking; one involving technology and one a simple refereeing decision.

Naturally from a Real Madrid point of view we’re all delighted that the referee did what he did - or didn’t do what he should have done to be more accurate – but the fact remains that a mistake is a mistake and nothing more. Kashima coach Masatada Ishii wasn’t impressed and reacted angrily; but decisions like that tend to even themselves out over a season (or so we are told).

Only Mr Sikazwe will know whether he changed his mind on reflection and decided that Sergio’s trip didn’t merit another card after all or whether he just didn’t want to be the referee who sent someone off in the final, but as the referee he has the freedom to make that decision and I’m sure he saw it as an honest one at the time. Nobody likes every decision you make being scrutinised world-wide but an involvement at that level of football inevitably leads to criticism.

However, the furore over the VAR could get a lot worse if FIFA decide to introduce this system as a standard measure for decision making during open play as opposed to restricting use of the system to goal-line decisions. If they do, then the most important aspect of the technology will be operator training and familiarity with it’s working. It’s certainly not a system that you’d want to be in charge of for the first time in a game of such magnitude as an international final or a derby match. Can you imagine the scenario in a ‘Clasico’ if the game’s already started and the guy in the video room is still trying to figure out how the thing works?

We’ve seen from Rugby League across the globe how video technology at it’s best can provide a truly accurate picture of what really happened in controversial incidents although it’s use is limited to the scoring of a try.

Often, though, if a touchdown is unclear the video ref will take several looks at the play from different angles before coming to a decision and it doesn’t always coincide with the fans perception of what that decision should be. In rugby league the crowd see the replays over and over again on the big screen at exactly the same time and from exactly the same angles as the video ref does so there’s very little chance of a wrong decision being made in haste after the first viewing.

Frequently, the video ref will replay the incident over and again until everyone is happy that the decision arrived at is the right one. It does, however, break up the flow of the game if after every try the on-field referee calls for video analysis. On the other hand, sometimes the referee will call for video analysis simply to confirm his decision at the time to either award a try or not is the correct one – a decision which he clearly indicates to the players and the crowd – so the decision-making isn’t totally handed over to the eye in the sky.

If football is going to adopt this technology then it’s going to have to learn from other sports like rugby league and provide video referees who are officials in their own right at the level in which such technology is used.

In the earlier round match between Atlético National of Colombia and Kashima Antlers, the VAR system was used by the Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai to award the Japanese side a penalty after confirming an incident using VAR that he had spotted in open play; reportedly pressured by the Kashima bench. Previously, use of such video-replays have been limited to goal-scoring decisions only. This, however, could change the face of football at that level if such technology becomes commonplace.

Back to the human nature, though. Opinions are divided about the use of VAR in football (with Sergio Ramos coming out the other day in favour of it and Luka Modrić against) and so we wait to see what limitations may or may not be placed on it’s use. Whether the technology will be limited to goalscoring situations as opposed to run-of-the-mill incidents on the field in regular play remains to be seen but will likely be the topic of heated debate.

Should FIFA’s decision eventually be to stick with goal-line adjudications only, I’m sure that bearing in mind the events of the final in Yokohama then despite his earlier opinion Sergio and even Mr Sikazwe will be in complete agreement with that one.

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