An almost official account of the Video Assistant Referee

Marcio Telles
Federal University of Paraíba, Brazil

Manuel Armenteros, Anto J. Benitez & Miguel Ángel Betancor (eds.)
The Use of Video Technologies in Refereeing Football and Other Sports
392 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2020 (Routledge Research in Sports Technology and Engineering)
ISBN 978-1-138-31204-3

The referees’ poor performance in the last stage of 2010 FIFA World Cup renewed the discussion on using technological devices for football refereeing. Eight years later, despite FIFA grudges, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) took the world by surprise – even though, as this collection neatly points out, this technology has a long history that the public was not paying attention to.

The Use of Video Technologies in Refereeing Football and Other Sports is, as far as this reviewer knows, the first book in English devoted to VAR. Three Spanish researchers organized the collection, and Spanish is the first language of the authors of 15 out of 18 chapters. The book has five parts. The first part, “The Need for Video Assistance in Football”, addresses the determination to bring technology to sports refereeing. The first chapter, by Juan Antonio Simón, constructs an archive of impressions of leading professional football actors (referees, footballers and executives) about a supposedly universal “desire” for using technology to “correct human errors”. That and the next chapter construct the narrative as if technology implementation was the only way of “finally” bringing justice to the sport. This view is troublesome, of course, because there is no discussion on what kind of technological justice we are dealing with, if we can even call it justice. The narrative also erases oppositional voices or flatten them into a “bad guy” framework – mainly represented by FIFA – trying at all costs to keep football in the past. This narrative sets the scene for the two ways VAR will be dealt with in the rest of the book: as a technological blessing that corrects human injustice and as a way of “modernising” football.

The three chapters in the second part, “Video Broadcasting Limitations”, offer some of the book’s most exciting parts. Benitez’s chapter presents a theoretical framework to analyze football telecasts, advancing some findings of his previous work. Of course, VAR shattered the careful weaving of constructed meaning television does in every match broadcasting, which is even more troublesome for the man responsible for the broadcast. More than a theoretical framework, then, Benitez aims to help his fellows Head Broadcasters. The book is written mainly by professionals – of media, law, and former football referees – with a professional readership in mind, as almost every chapter reports to the “responsible professional”. Thus, it is very normative (i.e., what professionals should and should not do). It does not mean one cannot learn a bit with professionals. One certainly can. However, this leaves out more pressing questions about the new technology and fails to offer good criticism (I will get back to those remarks in a second).

Referee Antonio Mateu reviews the VAR footage before awarding Australia a penalty during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group C match between Denmark and Australia at Samara Arena on June 21, 2018 in Samara, Russia. (Photo by Simon Hofmann – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Chapter 4 in particular brings light to a blind spot in the VAR polemics: the usage of audio. Although there are rigid rules for VAR’s images, FIFA does not mention anything about the audio format or even the likely quality of the sound. Even less is said about the communication among the referees, as audio channels are the communication medium between the referees in the VAR room and those on the field. Although the authors do not go there, it shows how FIFA thinks of images as self-explanatory surfaces. If every image is a piece of evidence, then there is no need for interpretation or meaning-making.

The third part of the book, “Video-Assisted Officiating in Other Sports, recounts the usage of video refereeing in the Spanish Basketball League (chapter 6), the NBA (chapter 7), tennis and rugby (chapter 8) and the NFL (chapter 9). Ángel M. López chapter tells a little about implementing an Instant Replay (IR) system in the Spanish ACB Basketball League. Even though championship matches have been broadcast since 1990, the purchase of Canal+ by Telefónica in 2015 created the necessary “infrastructure” to implement the new refereeing technology. This example points to VAR as historically localized within an ever-increasing technological infrastructure and ominous media conglomerates, not as an unyielding quest for justice.

The fourth part of the book, “Experiments with Video Assistant Referees, offers an in-depth review of the VAR protocol (chapter 10), four reports of testing and implementation of the technology across countries and competitions (international matches, Germany, Italy, and the US) and a piece, on VAR polemics in Twitter (chapter 15). These chapters are more reports than essays. Even the last chapter, Raquel Gallego’s on Twitter, offers documentation on the official accounts of FIFA, IFAB and the European football leagues. The author points out that their tweets aimed to inform and not to interact with other participants. With the audience left out of the picture, we cannot know how spectators perceived the ideal of universal justice defended by the authors. As this framework is never questioned, the book offers a kind of “official history” of VAR.

This example points to VAR as historically localized within an ever-increasing technological infrastructure and ominous media conglomerates, not as an unyielding quest for justice.

One should note that some of the authors are involved with the FIFA Refereeing Department and with the design of new technologies for referring. So, it is not only a “universal” desire for justice but a profoundly personal wish that confounds with the “official” discourse. When we get to the last part of the book, “New Challenges in Refereeing Performance”, we should bear that in mind. The three chapters in this part deal with the “importance of uniformity” of referees’ decisions about VAR (chapter 16), teaching strategies for VAR (chapter 17) and the psychological demand on referees after VAR implementation (chapter 18). As we can see, those chapters are about making VAR technology better, but never to question if VAR should exist in the first place or why it was received poorly by fans and why it continuously creates hatred among football audiences.

As it is, the most exciting subjects are left unchecked. The first one is how VAR intermingles within contemporary visual culture. As a referee says in the first chapter, VAR enabled football played in the field to became even more like television. That should have brought up some discussion about simulacra in sports, particularly in an age where deepfakes promise to threaten the kind of image empiricism VAR seems to be based on. A proper reevaluation of this empiricism should write off the repeated notion that VAR “modernises” football, “bringing it to 21st century”. It does not. VAR is more Modern than Post-Modern: the kind of authority it gives to images is much more 20th century than 21st. The technology operates inside the same epistemic view of Positivism, nonchalantly considering images as copies of the Real. Having this belief in the age of machine learning is naïve. Can we consider images mere copies without taking into account their technological mediation?

The last question left unchecked relates to our political world. Tingle’s chapter on instant replay technology in the NBA claims that greater transparency in arbitration through IR devices could contribute to the “trend” in contemporary culture to doubt people in positions of authority (such as politicians, professors, scientists, intellectuals, and others). Unfortunately, this hint is left unexplored. It falls back, again, to the ontology of images. If authority has the prerogative of interpretation and, by this very act, of creating reality, then this foundation has been shaken to its core with video refereeing. If the audience and the referees can look at the same images, the “epistemological power” of the referee cracks. The reality now depends on the viewer. We can think of the relationship between political tribalism, “I-pistemology” and the work of refereeing.

This collected volume has the merit of being one of the first publications entirely devoted to the phenomenon of Video Assistant Referee. Its main contribution is to organize the official point of view on VAR. However, a deepened understanding of this technology and its impact on sport and elsewhere is still needed. We should offer constructive criticism in order to question some of the certainties presented by the authors of this book.

Copyright © Marcio Telles 2021

Table of Content

Part 1: The Need for Video Assisted in Football

    1. Between Scepticism and the longed-awaited quest for “Football Justice”
      Juan Antonio Simón
    2. The Contribution of VARs to Fairness in Sport
      Juan De Dios Crespo

Part 2: Video Broadcasting Limitations

    1. Is it the same for the TV Screen and for the VAR? Planning the Use of Cameras and Replays to Solve the Controversy
      Anto J. Benítez
    2. The Interaction Between Audio and the Video Assistant Referee in Football
      Manuel Sánchez Cid and Alberto Luis García-García
    3. Replays in Football: A Technical Resource that Serves as a Narrative and Post-Refereeing System
      Alberto L. García-García and Manuel Sánchez Cid

Part 3: Video Assisted Officiating in Other Sports

    1. Instant Replay in The Spanish Basketball League: ACB
      Ángel M. López 
    2. Instant Replay System in the National Basketball Association
      Jacob K. Tingle 
    3. Video Technology for refereeing in other sports: Tennis and Rugby
      Anto J. Benítez, Esteban Stepanian, and Ángel M. López 
    4. Instant Replay in the National Football League
      Jacob K. Tingle and Manuel Armenteros

Part 4: Experiments with Video Assistant Referees

    1. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Protocol
      Carlos Bacigalupe
    2. VAR Experiments in International Matches
      Manuel Armenteros
    3. VAR experiments in the Bundesliga
      Otto Kolbinger
    4. VAR experiments in the Italian SERIE A League
      Juan Antonio Simón
    5. VAR in the Major League Soccer (MLS)
      Clinton Warren
    6. How Twitter has portrayed the VAR
      Raquel Gallego

Part 5: New Challenges in the Refereeing Performance

    1. Educating International Football Referees: The importance of Uniformity
      Manuel Armenteros and Tom Webb
    2. Didactic Teaching Strategies for the VAR. An Approach to Gamification and 21st-century Skills
      Marta Fernández, Miguel Ángel Betancor, and Manuel Armenteros 
    3. Psychological response of the referee to the introduction of VAR
      Ricardo de la Vega and Juan Pedro Fuentes
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