At some point during this World Cup, history will be made.
A referee will use two fingers to mark out a rectangle in the air or press his hand to his ear.
Back in a Moscow control room a four-strong team of officials will plug into 33 camera angles, including eight in super slow motion and four in ultra slow motion.
The referee on the ground and his “eye in the sky” will dissect an incident and the VAR (video assistant referee) system will be in use for the first time at a World Cup.
If we have learned anything from VAR since it was introduced to top-level football for the first time in Australia in April 2017, that is unlikely to be the end of the story.
What is VAR?
The theory behind VAR is simple: more accurate decisions, more often, and at the most important points in matches.
The on-pitch referee makes all the same calls, at the same speed and unaided, as he would without the system in place.
However the VAR – a current or former top referee – is in place to check decisions on four sorts of incidents:
- Goals, including ‘missed’ attacking offences in the build-up
- Penalties awarded and not awarded, including ‘missed’ attacking offences in the build-up
- Direct red cards
- Cases of mistaken identity where the wrong player is shown a red or yellow card
The referee can accept the information relayed through his earpiece by the VAR team, an option usually reserved for objective calls of fact such as if a player is offside.
Or, for more subjective decisions such as red cards and penalty-box fouls, he can review the footage on a pitchside television monitor before deciding whether to change his initial call.
The VAR team will also proactively contact the referee if they spot “a clear and obvious error” around these four types of incident or a “serious missed incident” – usually off-the-ball violence.
The referee can then decide whether or not to have a review – this is where the replay is officially consulted and is indicated by the referee showing the TV signal.
Has it been a success?
A study by Belgian university KU Leuven into 1,000 competitive matches using VAR suggests the system is a success in its broad aims.
According to its calculations, the system improves decision accuracy from 93% to 98.8%. Nine per cent of matches were shown to have had a different, and probably fairer, result than would have been the case without VAR.
But the individual incidents where VAR faltered, failed or spiralled into near-farce are its most memorable moments.
May’s A-League Grand Final is perhaps the one that will give World Cup organisers the most nightmares.
Nine minutes into the showpiece of the Australian domestic season, Melbourne Victory’s James Donachie set up Kostas Barbarouses for the first and, it turns out, only goal of the game.
However viewers at home on Fox Sports could clearly see on replays that Donachie was offside in the build-up to the goal.
Why hadn’t the VAR team intervened on what seemed a “clear and obvious” error?
Former Perth Glory coach Kenny Lowe posted a theory on social mediathat they had been enjoying a “nice glass of wine, chilling out, enjoying corporate sandwiches with two eye patches on”.
The reality was more mundane, but pretty damning.
A technical glitch mean that the relevant camera angle, while shown on television coverage, had not been available to the VAR team.
It was not the first time that things went awry.
In the Portuguese top flight in February, an apparently offside goal stood because a giant flag waved by a fan blocked a camera.
In a big Bundesliga relegation clash in April, the referee recalled the teams from the dressing rooms at half-time to award a penalty after VAR officials belatedly spotted a handball late in the first half.