The Tech Takeover Has Hit the World Cup, So Who's in Control?


Many a game has been colored, to use a neutral term, by the split-second inkling of a harried official: Was the player offside when the ball, 30 yards away amid a jungle of legs, was passed to him? Should that game-winning penalty have even been given? Did the ball even go in?

In such a lively sport — governed with relatively rigid rules but characterized by free-flowing movement and a ball that blurs when powerfully struck — human vision can often be rendered a guesstimate.

To alleviate human error, FIFA has slowly but steadily introduced technology to major tournaments. Four years ago in Brazil, “goal line technology” was employed for the first time with success and few complaints.

This year in Russia, the Video Assistant Referee system, or VAR, has joined the officiating teams. It is monitored by remotely headquartered rules officials who watch the match with dozens of camera angles and chirp into earpieces of referees when they spot potential mistakes. It is the first use of technology in the game on this scale. And it has already had a major influence on the tournament.

So far, referees have used VAR to finalize decisions on numerous occasions: Spain’s first goal in their 3-3 draw with Portugal and France’s all-important penalty in their 2-1 win over Australia were early high-profile examples.

Spain and Portugal were again center stage in VAR controversies during their last group stage matches: Spain tied Morocco 2-2 as Portugal simultaneously tied Iran 1-1. Even though both teams went through to the knockout rounds, they first underwent VAR-induced heart palpitations.

Spain’s equalizer to make it 2-2 in the final minutes was almost disallowed, but after a VAR review the Spaniards were given the goal. In a much trickier case, Portugal felt hard done by a VAR review of a 50-50 battle for a header in the box. The ball, nodded downward, struck a Portuguese defender’s hand, and the remote officials deemed it worthy of a penalty, which Iran then converted.

These were only two of many VAR stoppages during the matches. (All the delays during reviews substantially extended each game’s added-time — a rough estimate that is, technically, another aspect of the game at the sole discretion of the head referee.)

There have now been more penalties awarded in the 2018 World Cup than in any previous tournament thanks to VAR, but often there is more contention than clarity. Fans — who are quick to let their displeasure be known on Twitter — were also split on a technically correct but admittedly harsh hand ball call last week against Denmark that led to a goal off a penalty, which then led them to tie Australia.

Decisions to not use VAR, such as when Argentina were denied a penalty in their draw against Iceland, have also been deeply consequential. And Brazilian officials, still angered by tying Switzerland 1-1 in their first game, have demanded an explanation from FIFA for why VAR went unused for what they argue was a foul on Gabriel Jesus in the penalty area. For many, the dilute nature of the system inspires doubt.

“I’m not sure they will be able to select the angles quickly enough to get the decision back to the referee before the game has been restarted,” the Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville said after the neglect of VAR as time ran out for Argentina during their battle against Iceland.

This newfangled technology will continue to make waves as the tournament progresses. And it is certain that someone — or entire nations — won’t be very happy. Research indicates the deployment of these systems makes sense, and “getting it right” should supersede all other concerns.

It’s also true that the game, as opponents feared, may lose a bit of its mystique and fluidity. For spectators at least, there’s something not only familiar but also perversely self-satisfying about hollering over a bad call in real time, filled with righteous indignation that it can’t be overturned.

Although in other sports it may be normal, for any longtime football fan, it surely feels foreign, stilted, even invasive to watch a referee pause a match midplay to consult a slow-motion video. It’s yet another aspect of human expertise that we have conceded to the superior eye of technology. But better eyesight has never meant better judgment. In the end, it’s still our call.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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