Video Assistant Referee – Rarely have three words in football caused such controversy.
In recent weeks, VAR has been thrust back into the spotlight in the Premier League after Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) chief referee Howard Webb apologized to Arsenal and Brighton for “significant errors” in last month’s games, followed Lee Mason is leaving his role as Premier League VAR official after the high-profile blunder.
No matter how many controversial decisions there may be, video technology in the Premier League is here to stay, but are there similar teething problems in other leagues across Europe? How differently do their systems work? What lessons can be shared? Does VAR spark as much debate as it does in England?
The Athletic went behind the scenes at the Bundesliga VAR center in Cologne – a central facility connected to all of Germany’s top stadiums – to find out.
Germany have not been exempt from their own controversy over refereeing decisions this season.
“I think that we generally use the VAR in Germany in an inflationary manner,” said RB Leipzig coach Marco Rose after the controversial 2-1 defeat against Union Berlin, which was checked several times by the VAR. “We’re not doing the referees on the field any favors by doing that. We just watch TV and keep changing channels.”
After the recent 2-1 defeat against Freiburg, VfB Stuttgart coach Bruno Labbadia went a step further with two penalties and explained: “You always get fooled. I remain an absolute opponent of VAR. That ruins football.”
The challenge in Germany was to change the broader perception among players and staff. A 2020 survey found that over 50 percent of players were dissatisfied with their use of VAR in the Bundesliga, but the drive for continuous improvement year after year has been relentless.
From a technological point of view, the Bundesliga model has worked differently to the rest of Europe since the start of the 2022/23 season.
Other leagues hire third-party technology companies. In Germany, the German Football League (DFL) – the umbrella organization of the two highest German leagues – has founded a joint venture called Sportec Solutions with the technology company Deltatre.
Crucially, this partnership allows the Bundesliga to keep its own data and technology infrastructure in-house and offers greater video routing autonomy.
“At VAR there is always a lot of emotion on a match day, but if you take a step back and look at the technology from a distance, we get a lot of positive feedback,” says Lukas Glockner, Head of Referee Technology at Sportec Solutions.
VAR Center of the Bundesliga in Cologne
The level of infrastructure, technology, time and money invested in running the Bundesliga shows their dedication to ensuring VAR and goal-line technology is as accurate as possible.
Comprehensive surveillance at each stadium includes 19 broadcast cameras for a standard game (and up to 23 for big games like Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund) with an additional 14 goal-line cameras capturing images at 200 frames per second.
The fieldside monitor at the BayArena, home of Bayer Leverkusen
But despite the myriad of cameras and sophisticated technology, human intervention and judgment are still required for the most controversial decisions.
So how does the Bundesliga ensure they make these decisions in the best way possible?
Clear language between on-field officials and video officials is of paramount importance.
The German Football Association (DFB) brought in professional pilots as part of its VAR training, who taught them how to communicate commands and information directly and clearly, minimizing the possibility of subjective interpretation.
“Very clear communication (between VAR officials, VAR operators and on-field referees) is key to making quick and accurate decisions,” says Glockner. “The team needs to speak the same language (figuratively) and trust each other to get their respective jobs done – especially when it comes to complex processes like offside or multiple incidents.”
Clarity between match officials is something they believe the Bundesliga does well, but communicating the decision-making process to fans at the stadium is seen as a key area that needs improvement.
In Germany, as in the Premier League, the incidents are not shown to the fans.
“From a televised perspective, you get a good feel for what’s happening during VAR but not in the stadium – or when you’re watching online – and there are ways we can improve on that,” says Simon Farrant, Director of Strategic Growth, sports data and official at Deltatre.
“I would like to be creative to better inform the people in the stadium. In theory, you could send push notifications to fans’ phones, you could use smart glasses, you could even use virtual reality. Without restrictions we could explore something like that. It feels like an exciting opportunity, but it will take time for us to be able to do that.”
In the Premier League, Howard Webb has shown his support for the idea of open mic communication for fans.
“I’m all for openness and transparency and I’m trying to pull back the curtain on decision-making,” Webb told Sky Sports. “When people can see and better understand the reasons behind a decision, they may not agree with the outcome, but at least they better understand and accept why.”
FIFA agreed to test broadcasting VAR decisions to audiences and television audiences via the on-pitch referee at tournaments next year, starting with the Club World Cup in Morocco.
It happened in the game between Al Ahly and Auckland City when referee Ma Ning explained to the crowd his reasons for a penalty kick being overturned.
From the Bundesliga’s point of view, there aren’t many technological barriers that would prevent their referees from doing the same.
“We’re ready for anything – and we can do it very simply, with just one additional cable,” says Tom Janicot, Director of Video Solutions at Sportec Solutions.
“It’s the same discussion with the broadcast of the referee audio. But there are many implications of doing something like that, so these decisions take a long time.”
The risks of referee audio have been discussed at length, including the possibility of abuse or verbal abuse, which is being addressed by the reporting. Additionally, giving the referee a platform on which to be heard and unnecessarily spotlighting a referee’s personality and temperament could spark further debate about the decisions.
However, the common goal remains the same for all – to ensure that VAR is workable and understandable for officials, clubs and supporters.
Research studies have examined the change in referee decisions in the Bundesliga since the introduction of VAR, including factors such as average decision time and number of rollovers.
“Everything we do with the VAR system is about working toward better, faster decisions,” says Janicot. “We’re looking at how long offsides last and breaking it down to see what we can improve on.”
FIFA will test broadcasting VAR decisions to audience and television audiences via the on-pitch referee
Although many football fans around the world are skeptical about the increasing use of computers, cameras and automation in football, the view from the Bundesliga is that the technology is not the problem – making it more transparent is the key challenge.
“Technology is an important part of sport today and will remain so,” said Glockner. “It proves that what we’re doing gives the game an advantage.”
Rugby Union’s TV Match Officials (TMOs), tennis’ Hawk-Eye and cricket’s Decision Review System (DRS) are all widely accepted, but that’s partly because they’ve been refined over a longer period of time than VARs of football.
Countless cables, dozens of cameras and a constant review process are proof that football hopes to follow the same path with VAR.
(All photos: Deltatre/Sportec Solutions)