Has Video Refereeing Ruined The World Cup?

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 8:59 pm

Tensions were high at a crowded bar in New York City, packed with sweating Belgian and French fans. A lot was at stake: Whoever won Tuesday's game would go on to play in the World Cup final. Anxious fans booed, chanted and yelled at the screen.

As raucous as soccer can get, it's also a game of charades. Players communicate with the referee, who often speaks a different language, by using sign language. A striker will hold up an invisible infraction card to ask that an opponent be penalized; the ref might point at his eyes to acknowledge a misbehaving player.

And this year, a new gesture has been added to the lexicon: a box drawn in the air, which means, "Let's check the video replay."

This is the first time FIFA, soccer's governing body, has allowed video replay to be used to make penalty calls in a World Cup. And while fans of basketball and American football are used to the referees stopping the game to consult video footage, soccer purists say it's ruining everything.

The major complaint is that it's making the matches much longer than the typical 90-minute games.

Martin Rogers, a sports columnist for USA Today, says Video Assistant Referee (or VAR) is "slow, clunky and unpredictable." Over the phone from Russia, where he's reporting on the World Cup, he jokes, "I remember back in the day, when if a game kicked off at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, you'd be all wrapped up by 4:45."

Rogers says this type of technology works well for American football and basketball. "When you look at the calls that are used for replay, in basketball for example, it's normally factual. It's based on, 'Did a player get a shot off before the clock expired?' It's easy. You know. It's black and white."

But soccer, Rogers says, is different. He's referring to one of the most hated and beloved qualities of the game: the endless drama. It's a thespian sport.

Take a player like Brazil's Neymar, the Meryl Streep of soccer. He dives spectacularly when a player merely brushes him, and agonizes for minutes on the ground hoping to get the ref to call a foul on the opposing team.

Rogers says with performances like that, a human referee is more effective than video. "You can see that there's been contact," he says. "But the video doesn't show how hard that contact is, especially in slow motion. So it's really, really difficult to tell."

Some might argue that those Oscar-worthy performances are precisely the reason VAR is needed. Take the case of the Brazil-Costa Rica game last month. With just 12 minutes remaining in a scoreless match, Neymar fell dramatically on the ground, claiming he'd been fouled. The ref granted a penalty but decided to double check with VAR. The footage showed a different story: Neymar had practically fallen all by himself. The penalty was overturned with the help of video footage.

FIFA says video reviews are "close to perfection." That's a shift from some of the egregious wrong calls made in soccer games in the last decade or so, mistakes that went viral on social media.

Chris Bowerbank, host of the Premier League podcast Across the Pond, says it was just a matter of time before video technology was incorporated into the game. Bowerbank himself was initially on the fence about video replay.

But he thinks it may have had a positive impact on this World Cup: Players are behaving better. "There've been zero foul-play or violent red cards in this World Cup. And part of it might be that, you know, there is a camera on people now at all times," he says.

Back at the crowded pub in Manhattan, the end is near. France is winning, 1-0. It's been a cautious game, and the referee never once consults with VAR. The match wraps up: France is heading to the finals. Dejected Belgians exit the bar, weaving through rowdy, celebrating French fans.

Outside, I run into Kenneth Coremans, from Belgium, smoking a cigarette with his friend. He's been crying. I ask him if using video replay would have helped Belgium. "Yes. Yes. Definitely," he responds, deflated. He says that if only the referee had seen the footage, he'd have called at least one of the fouls against Belgium, giving them an opening to win.

As he explains this to me, two French fans walk by and taunt him.

That's the thing about soccer, it can be really cruel. And using this new technology can be annoying — until you need it on your side.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

France faces Croatia in the World Cup final on Sunday. It marks the end of a month when soccer fans have been glued to their screens. And so have the referees. This is the first World Cup where they've used video replay. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on the controversy that's caused.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Tensions were high Tuesday at a crowded bar in New York packed with sweating Belgian and French fans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Chanting in foreign language).

GARSD: As raucous as soccer gets, it's also a game of charades used to communicate with the referee. Players hold up invisible infraction cards to ask that an opponent be penalized. The ref points at his eyes to acknowledge a misbehaving player. And this year, a new gesture has been added. A box drawn in the air means let's check the video replay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Let's go, Belgium.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Let's go. Let's go.

GARSD: Fans of basketball and football are used to the referee stopping the game to consult with the video replay. But soccer purists say it's ruining everything.

MARTIN ROGERS: I remember back in the day when if a game kicked off at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, you'd be all wrapped up by 4:45.

GARSD: Martin Rogers is a sports columnist for USA Today. He says the overuse of video assistant referee, or VAR as it's called in soccer, is making the matches drag on. Rogers says video replay works for football and basketball.

ROGERS: When you look at the calls that are used for replay in basketball, for example, it's normally factual. It's based on, did a player get a shot off before the clock expired? It's easy. You know. It's black and white. But soccer is such a subjective game.

GARSD: He's referring to one of the most hated and beloved qualities of soccer - the endless drama. Take a player like Brazil's Neymar, the Meryl Streep of soccer. He dives spectacularly when a player merely brushes him, agonizes on the ground, hoping to get the ref to call a foul on the opposing team. Rogers says with performances like that, a human referee is more effective than video.

ROGERS: You can see that there's been contact, but the video doesn't show how hard that contact is, especially in slow motion. So it's really, really difficult to tell.

GARSD: But FIFA, soccer's governing body, says video reviews are close to perfection. That's a shift from some of the egregious wrong calls made in soccer games in the last decade or so, mistakes that went viral on social media. Chris Bowerbank hosts the soccer podcast Across the Pond.

CHRIS BOWERBANK: I think it was just a matter of time before FIFA looked at other sports and how video technology has been used and trying to bring it into this game.

GARSD: Bowerbank thinks video replay may have had a positive impact on this World Cup. Players are behaving better.

BOWERBANK: There have been zero foul play or violent red cards in this World Cup. And part of it might be that, you know, there is a camera on people now at all times.

GARSD: Back at the crowded pub in Manhattan, the end is near. France is winning 1-0. It's a cautious game, and the ref never consults with VAR. Outside, I run into Kenneth Coremans from Belgium smoking a cigarette with his friend. He's been crying.

Did you feel like at any point they should have used video referees for this?

KENNETH COREMANS: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yes.

COREMANS: Yes, definitely.

GARSD: As they explain, two French fans walk by and taunt them.

COREMANS: Good moments for us to take that free kick that's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).

COREMANS: Yeah. And there...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).

COREMANS: There's the arrogance.

GARSD: That's the thing about soccer. It can be really cruel. And that's the thing about using new technology. It can be annoying until you need it on your side. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.