Vorsprung durch Technik

After a season with Germany's top soccer players, video-referee heads to World Cup

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How do you change the channel on this thing? Source: imago/Thomas Frey

Germany has led the way when it comes to video assistant-referees in soccer, and now its expertise might be about to pay off at the biggest tournament in the world: the World Cup.

The technology, arguably the biggest change to soccer in the modern era, will be used at the event in Russia later this month for the first time. And if Germany’s recent turbulent experience with the system is any indication, prepare for some added excitement on and off the pitch.

At the start of the 2017-2018 Bundesliga season, the newly installed video system failed, suffering technical glitches at several games. At a match between SC Freiburg and FSC Mainz, the referee sent the players off to the locker room at half-time, only to call them back for a penalty shot after his video assistant spotted a foul.

A controversial call at the league’s recent DFB Cup final between Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt also had experts scratching their heads. After consulting with his video assistant and viewing clips on the sideline, the ref declined to award the Bavarians what most armchair fans saw as a clear penalty – including Frankfurt midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng who committed the foul on Bayern’s Javi Martinez. “I clearly hit him but it was up to the referee to decide,” Mr. Boateng confessed in a post-game interview. “I honestly thought he was going to award a penalty.” The referee’s explanation: “This was no black-and-white call that could be 100 percent correct and satisfy everyone.”

“There’s no question that we have benefited from our experience in the Bundesliga.”

Bastian Dankert, Bundesliga referee

Despite these hiccups and concerns about disrupting the flow and killing the emotion of the game, the Bundesliga’s video-assistant experience has been positive. Most fans, players, coaches and club managers want the added refereeing support. So does soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, and it wants to draw on Germany’s full-season experience for its global tournament. Referees Bastian Dankert and Felix Zwayer will join the 13-member VAR team in Russia. “There’s no question that we have benefited from our experience in the Bundesliga,” Mr. Dankert told reporters after his nomination. “We’re optimistic the system will perform well at the World Cup.”

We’ll see soon enough. As with American football and hockey, VAR gives a booth-based official the chance to view video clips showing what happened on the field from a variety of different angles. The technology allows the assistant to quickly review a play and communicate with the field referee to help with sometimes game-changing calls. The ref can also review the controversial situation at a sideline monitor.

At the World Cup, after a decision is made using VAR, replays will be shown on giant screens inside the stadiums accompanied by a written explanation. Advocates see the system as a way to ensure fairness by avoiding errors. The World Cup is filled with refereeing howlers, like Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal at the 1986 finals or German striker Rudi Völler’s dive against Argentina to win a penalty in 1990.

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Fans aren't very forgiving when referees make bad calls. Source: dpa

Calls for introducing the technology to soccer, the world’s most popular sport, have grown louder in recent years as more electronics have entered the stadium. Many in the stands now have smartphones and can watch streamed video replays of incidents immediately after they happen, something the referee himself wasn’t able to do. So FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, decided to take action, and with the approval of experts took aim at the most contentious area: goal-line calls.

Goal-line technology, which uses multiple high-speed cameras and computer algorithms to quickly detect the ball’s location, set a precedent for referee-assisted support in professional soccer. FIFA introduced the system at the 2014 World Cup, four years after an unlucky referee failed to spot a clear goal in a knockout game against Germany, who went on to win. The technology is now standard in top-tier European leagues.

The vote to approve VAR was taken by the International Football Association Board, which establishes the rules of the game, after a two-year worldwide trial that included 972 matches in more than 20 leagues. The accuracy of referee calls, according to the association, increased from 93 percent to 98.8 percent, and in 9 percent of the games, video calls had a game-changing impact.

In the last Bundesliga season, referees corrected calls with the help of their video assistants 70 times in 306 games. The VAR decisions were in four categories: goals and offenses leading up to goals, penalty decisions, direct red-card incidents and cases of mistaken identity with red and yellow cards. After viewing video replays, they withdrew 23 goals and gave one. Four clubs would have stood higher in the ranking without VAR. One, Borussia Dortmund, would have dropped from fourth to fifth place – meaning it would have lost out on the lucrative Champions League.

The question in the coming weeks: Who will be the VAR winners and losers at the World Cup?

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: blau@handelsblatt.com

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