Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers, 45, has been a Fifa referee since 2006 and has officiated two Europa League finals as well as the 2013-14 Champions League decider. Russia will be his second World Cup. Photo: Reuters
Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers, 45, has been a Fifa referee since 2006 and has officiated two Europa League finals as well as the 2013-14 Champions League decider. Russia will be his second World Cup. Photo: Reuters

2018 FIFA World Cup: With VAR at hand, referees take centre stage

With the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR), on-field match officials maybe under the scanner in Russia. Will they be able to rise to the occasion?

There are the stars, and their emotions. And then, there are the passionate, yet unforgiving fans. In stark contrast, is the lone figure, chasing the ball around the park with zeal, but devoid of any emotion. Instead, he is guided by a sharp sense of judgement and a pair of piercing eyes.

Yet, the match referee is aware of the realities, the sense of pride, identity and belonging shared by both the fans and the players. He knows that one wrong decision on his part could be the difference between a nation’s ecstasy and agony. And the burden is far more pronounced on the big stage of world football, as the final call for fair play rests with him.

However, all’s not well as the teams and officials head for Russia. The use of video assistant referees, or VARs, for the first time in World Cup matches without a proper prior trial has come under criticism, while Fifa’s move to exclude British match referees, believed to be among the best in Europe, has also come as a surprise.

And, there’s more. A World Cup-bound Kenyan official, Adel Range Marwa, was recently caught taking a ‘gift’ worth $600.

During the qualifiers, Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey was found guilty of manipulating a game between Senegal and South Africa, which eventually led to a life ban. Fahad Al-Mirdasi, a Saudi Arabian referee, also had to be dropped from the list of games officials, after allegations of match fixing.

Past events

While Fifa has been vigilant on calls of corruption, an essential aspect of a referee’s job is to ascertain the extent of contact he is willing to allow without blowing the whistle.

The 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands is a good example of how referees can go wrong. Howard Webb was so liberal that the game turned out to be more of a rugby match than football. So much so that Nigel de Jong’s kung fu kick at Xabi Alonso’s chest became as pervasive an image from South Africa, as Andres Iniesta’s celebrations after the goal in extra time.

On the other end, was the round-of-16 clash between Portugal and Germany in the 2006 edition. Referee Valentin Ivanov dished out cards like free candies—at every little infraction, whether actual or perceived. By the end of the match Ivanov had produced 20 cards—16 yellow and four red. The match earned the infamous title of “Battle of Nuremberg".

German referee Felix Brych, 42, will be at his second World Cup and has in the past taken charge of the 2014 Europa League and 2017 Champions League finals.
German referee Felix Brych, 42, will be at his second World Cup and has in the past taken charge of the 2014 Europa League and 2017 Champions League finals.

Physical demands

A referee’s job is physically very demanding.

According to the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), the institution responsible for match officials in the English league, referees run 11-12km—about the same distance as a top flight player.

Fifa used to have an upper age limit of 45 years for match officials, but it was removed in 2015. Referees also need to undergo periodic fitness tests. Considering match officials, on an average, are older than the players, the physical demands coupled with the task of making correct decisions under immense pressure can be taxing.

Yet, they are able to get about 98% of them correct, according to the latest PGMOL report. That figure will certainly improve with VAR in Russia, with Serie A, which implemented the system in all league games last season, reporting a drop in refereeing errors from 5.78% to a mere 0.89%.

Challenges in Russia

Fifa has finally turned to technology to help referees make informed decisions. But the fact that Russia will be the first date with VAR for many officials, there might be teething problems.

The players’ lack of respect for match officials is another major issue. The sight of players surrounding the referees for almost every decision against them is not uncommon. The obscenities and hatred often continue off the pitch on social media.

To protect its officials, football could take a leaf out of rugby’s books where the referee calls the team captains to explain his decisions or to calm things down when tempers flare, whilst the other players step back.

While expecting all ills to be addressed during one tournament is an exercise in futility, the introduction of goal-line technology in 2014 and VAR this summer shows Fifa is trying. Fans will hope only the quality of football dominates discussions once the curtains rise in Russia.

Turkey’s Cuneyt Cakir, 41, is a regular in top European games, having overseen some of the biggest clashes of recent seasons. Russia will be his second World Cup.
Turkey’s Cuneyt Cakir, 41, is a regular in top European games, having overseen some of the biggest clashes of recent seasons. Russia will be his second World Cup.

What is VAR?

Video assistant referee (VAR) is invoked in case of game-changing decisions, which include goals (infringement in the lead up), penalty decisions, direct red cards, mistaken identity (referee awards a yellow or red card to the wrong player).

In any of these four cases, the referee informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends a review. The referee then views the footage and consults the VAR before making his decision.

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