On Thursday Russia and Saudi Arabia will contest the first match of this year’s FIFA World Cup, the biggest competition in soccer – and most viewed sporting event on earth.
Soccer is by some distance the world’s most popular sport. But it has resisted technology like few others: the first time match-altering technology debuted came only in 2012, at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. The oldest use of tech in sport was a photo-finish at an 1888 horse race meet in New Jersey. Wimbledon’s line call platform Cyclops arguably became the first judgement-aiding technology in 1980.
Goal-line technology created few controversies at its debut at 2014’s World Cup in Brazil. This year the VAR, or video assistant referee, will take its bow on the biggest stage. A recent UK poll discovered over half of fans think it will be a good thing. Evidence suggests otherwise.
VAR allows match officials to consult video footage to uphold over overturn decisions deemed controversial on the field of play. It already featured in domestic leagues this past season – and the results have been mixed. In Germany a referee called players back from their half-time breaks for a penalty decision changed just before the whistle. In Portugal a video referral was hampered by a flag-waving fan, and crowds across Europe have been treated to a litany of strange and confounding VAR farces.
This might suggest the platform needs time to bed in. FIFA have had none of it, and referees in Russia will have the tech at their fingertips. This poses two major problems. VAR robs soccer of the spontaneous joy of goalscoring. Referees will be too nervous to give world-changing goals outright; fans and players must undoubtedly put celebrations on hold for agonizing, and emotion-draining, minutes.
Second, there’s little evidence that VAR gets things right. Referees have still made poor decisions having consulted it, and at this year’s A-League Grand Final in Australia, in front of almost 30,000 fans, the tech failed to recognize an “offside” winning goal.
Perhaps it is simply an issue of time: video calls are made in almost all American sports, cricket, rugby, tennis and other games, and are these days accepted as part and parcel of the viewing experience. Soccer fans may simply need to get with the times. But so does VAR – and debuting it at the most prestigious tournament on earth could be a fatal act of FIFA hubris.