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FIFA’s video referee technology moves step closer, China in contention to innovate

By Jonathan Powell at Yutang Sports 14 Apr 2017

Photo credit: Getty Image

The possibility of having video assistant referees (VARs) in football continues to move forward, with FIFA last week taking the next step in implementation procedures.

FIFA’s Head of Football Technology Innovation Johannes Holzmüeller last week travelled to Australia to oversee the live test use of the experimental technology in the nation’s top-level A-League matches.

The video assistant referee (VAR) is a football assistant referee that reviews decisions made by the head referee with the use of video footage and a headset for communication.

Speaking to Yutang Sports from the SportAccord Convention in Denmark on last Wednesday, Holzmüeller said there is no reason Chinese Super League could not be the first competition to officially use the decision assisting technology, if it is recommended for implementation, which could come as soon as 2018.   

“It’s important that we look at how we can improve the football experience, which is our number one goal, and our new vision at FIFA,” said Holzmüeller.

“It’s important for us to look at innovations, in all areas. We talk about the experience of players, referees and coaches on the field, and the experience of the fans. The door opener was goal line technology. We went through the entire process, a long journey (to bring it into reality) but it was very successful in the end. Now we have more and more leagues using goal line technology. This was the starting point.

“Now we are looking at additional areas, like video assistant referee, electronic performance and tracking systems such as wearable technologies. Then we try to find out with experiments if these create additional value for the game itself. For us it’s important that we first start with the game itself, and then we go to the entertainment factor.”

Football’s governing body has observed in other sports, that when it comes to technology, the research starts with the entertainment potential, and then moves to the game itself. But FIFA follows a more pragmatic approach.

“We start with the game, and if it makes sense then we discuss how we can bring it to the fans, so that they have a better understanding, a better explanation of the game itself.”    

“In general, everywhere we try with these new technologies, anywhere in the world, we try to develop standards and implement them for the entire world. European football culture is different from Asian football culture, which is different from US football culture. We try to bring through technology that could be used anywhere. For example, I’m sure with the data project we have already, we could come up with KPIs (key performance indicators), an index, that could measure the performance of players all over the world, in any country. This could create additional interest for football fans, and it might give the exact performance indicators of the star players, or favorite national team players. This kind of thing could create more fan engagement in general.”

FIFA encourages companies, mainly start ups, who come with ideas on how to solve these technology challenges. It has a database of 150-200 companies it works with. One example is playing surfaces. A few companies from China, making artificial turf, have worked with FIFA on new technology ideas.

Holzmüeller says it is not impossible that the Chinese Super League could be the first big competition to officially use a VAR.

“It’s up to the competition organizers. We have around 20 competitions experimenting with it, all over the world - smaller leagues and big ones too.

All these leagues want to be the first one, to be the innovator. It depends on their strategy. It’s always up to each competition organizer to decide if they want to join us with these experiments, and other experiments too, there are many.”

Some regions or countries have shown to be more flexible in terms of trying out new ideas. With tech in sports, especially with the video assistant referee, it’s been easier to get acceptance from fans in the United States, as other sports leagues there have already tested and accepted it.

Last week testing began in the major leagues, with the first live matches in the A-League in Australia. Then it moves to other leagues in Europe, such as Italy and Germany, and the first effort is to see how the fans react.

“The fans in Europe and Asia have never seen this kind of technology, so we are very interested to see their reactions,” said Holzmüeller.

“We have been doing fan surveys with football markets such as in Russia, China, North and South America, and ask their opinions. During the last survey, before the experiments started, 79% said they were in favor of video assistant referees. Now we will do more research and find out if the number is still high after they have witnessed the technology in action.

“We try to bring all the opinions together, the opinion of the players, referees and coaches, but the fans opinion on VAR is critical as to whether we push forward. If we create something that the fans don’t like, can we really say that it is an improvement on the game? I would say no. They are the ones coming to the matches to spend their time and money.”

“Before the approval of goal line technology in 2012, it was a fifty–fifty split in opinion from fans about whether it should be introduced. ‘We want the game to stay the same, it will change the game’ some said. Others said: ‘we need it, as everyone is seeing the replays on their smartphones anyway.’ “

But there was an incident in the 2014 World Cup when opinion changed.

“This is when the majority of football fans understood that goal line tech does not change the game. They could see it was a benefit to football immediately. There have been many incidents in the English Premier League this season, and it is now widely accepted. Remember the Frank Lampard moment in the 2010 World Cup when the ball seemed to cross the line? There was a long debate on the sidelines between the players, coaches and referees. This is no longer part of the game, which is a good thing, because it is now a factual decision, goal or not.

“But it’s a different story with the video assistant referee tech on penalty decisions. Half the fans will always say it is player simulation. So now we have to find out how this tech is perceived by fans through testing. Goal line technology is black and white. With decision (VAR) tech it may not be so clear.

“We must be sure, do we implement or not? The original deadline was March 2018 to make a decision. But it still may not be clear by then, and we may need to experiment for another year. What is important for us, is clear facts, to base our recommendation, and then the lawmakers will decide to implement or not. But no matter what, this will never remove debate from the game. Fans will always discuss the decisions.” 

Tags: #SAC2017 FIFA VAR
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