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First time use of VAR during a World Cup - Analysis of the group stage

Video Assistant Referee at the World Cup 2018

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Prior to the World Cup, the usage of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at the World Cup 2018 in Russia, was the big topic of discussion for everyone – for the media, the football associations, referees, players and probably also for football fans like you. Especially in Germany, where VAR was going through its official test period in the Bundesliga, the video assistance was highly criticized. High number of interferences, mistakes, lack of consistency and transparency and too long decision making processes were the arguments against VAR.

These mistakes were expected in this World Cup too, especially since most referees had no prior experience with the Video Assistant. Now, that the first round is over and the media is even talking positively about VAR, it is time to take a good long look at the data.

To offer you a good insight, we analyzed which VAR decisions were made and how the first round of the World Cup 2018 would have looked liked without VAR. Would Germany still be in? How about the other favorites, who would still play and who would have dropped out?VideoAssistantRefereeWorldCupRules

Video technology in football: How does VAR work?

In 2014, the video technology project in football started. A team of experts from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) worked on a framework, establishing parameters for the usage of video technology in football matches. Within this framework conditions, two guidelines for the international Video Assistant Referee (VAR) were defined: “Minimum interference – maximum benefit” and “interference only in case of clear and obvious mistakes”. Additionally, the four game situations (red/no red, goal/no goal, penalty/no penalty and mistaken identities) in which VAR should interfere were defined. The question, whether the ball passed the goal line or not, is NOT a decision that VAR should interfere with. Also, it was determined that Video Assistant only functions as a referee assistant on the field.

Video technology in Germany

When comparing the statistical data of German Bundesliga’s first round internationally, it is noticeable that German Video Assistant Referees (VAR) interfere more often than in other leagues. Whilst in the Bundesliga an average of 6,8 situations were being reviewed, in Italy it was only 5,13 game situations and when looking at all 17 test countries, the IFAB shows only a total average of 3,95 reviewed situations.


But the question is, does VAR work?

The IFAB is talking about 5,3% negatively influenced games until March 2018, but looking at the 48 German VAR decisions during the first round, you can clearly detect 11 wrong decisions (as seen in the infographic) – thus, a total of 23% are mistakes! The numbers could be a result of the more negative attitude towards VAR in Germany, meaning that more control can lead to more negative outcome. In Italy, Video Assistance is way more accepted in the media than it is in Germany. The guiding principle of VAR is clearly to increase fairness and interestingly, relegated teams profited the most from VAR, which could be seen as an increase, as well as a decrease in fairness.


Does VAR work better in the World Cup than at the Bundesliga?

Preliminary data shows that the number of changed games, due to VAR interferences in this World Cup’s first round is at 0,35, thus every 3rd game had a VAR revision (Bundesliga’s first round: 0,31). According to FIFA, 6,98 decisions per game were reviewed, in comparison to 6,8 situations per game in the Bundesliga.

Annotation: The official numbers by FIFA show 14 revised and 3 maintained decisions. Among the 14 revised decisions were 12 penalties, two goal decisions, two red card decisions and one mistaken identity, also the three maintained decision were about penalties. Unfortunately, we have not yet got an answer from FIFA regarding the official listing of all VAR situations. The information we have is therefore based on our own observation.

World Cup Video Assistant statistics: 17 reviews in 48 matches

Not much change happened regarding the consistency in the decisions, which is not necessarily because of the video technology, but rather the unclear interpretation of the rules. Referees still don’t really know how to handle handballs in the penalty area, which leads to two similar game situations with a different ruling even after the usage of VAR. This happened in the game between Iran and Portugal, when Iran got a penalty kick after a handball from Cedric Soares, but Nigeria didn’t get one in the match against Argentina, when Marcos Rojo headed the ball onto his own arm.

The Video Assistant Referee can only be used in four situations. During this World Cup’s first round VAR was used eleven times for penalty kick (64,7 percent), three times for goal/no goal decisions (17,6 percent), two times for red/second yellow card (11,8 percent) and one time for a mistaken identity (5,9 percent). In the German Bundesliga 66,7 percent of VAR interferences were for penalties at the end of this season. The data is quite similar.


The time needed for revisions is higher at the World Cup than in the Bundesliga. Whilst decisions in the Bundesliga took an average of 68 seconds, the decision making in the World Cup took in average 80 seconds. The time loss per game therefore increased, which was then balanced with the average of two minutes extra time.

Better regarding transparency

In one point FIFA is actually doing a better job than the DFL, decisions and the decision making processes are much more understood. Bundesliga referees were blindly pressing the headphones to their ears, without giving any explanation to the audience, whereas referees in the World Cup firstly listen to the objection of the Video Assistants and afterwards take a look at the situations themselves. In this time, journalists and the audience are being informed about what scene the referees are currently reviewing. The important situation is additionally shown on the screens in the stadium, which creates acceptance and tolerance for small mistakes.


VAR at the World Cup 2018: These teams would still have reached the next stage if it wasn’t for VAR

It was clear, that mistakes with the use of VAR will happen during this World Cup, but the actual scandals were situations in which VAR didn’t interfere. The problem is here, that referees will always have a good basis for argumentation when looking at the guidelines, saying that VAR can only interfere “in case of clear and obvious mistakes”. Discussions about those cases will always be about speculations, therefore we decided to only look at the decisions made in interferences.

Group Kind of decision Match Initial decision Chanced decision Result
A Penalty Russia – Egypt Free kick Egypt Penalty Egypt Goal Egypt
B Goal Iran – Spain Goal Iran Offside No goal
B Goal Spain – Morocco Offside No Offside Goal Spain
B Penalty Portugal – Iran Nothing Penalty Portugal Missed penalty
B Red card Portugal – Iran Foul Ronaldo (Portugal) Yellow card Ronaldo Yellow card Ronaldo
B Penalty Portugal – Iran Nothing Penalty Iran Goal Iran
C Penalty Australia – France Nothing Penalty France Goal France
C Penalty Denmark – Peru Nothing Penalty Peru Missed penalty
C Penalty Denmark – Australia Nothing Penalty Australia Goal Australia
C Mistaken identities France – Peru Yellow card Flores (Peru) Yellow card Aquino (Peru) Corrected identities
D Penalty Iceland – Nigeria Nothing Penalty Iceland Missed penalty
E Red card Serbia – Costa Rica Foul Prijović (Serbia) Yellow card for Prijović Yellow card Prijović
E Penalty Brasilia – Costa Rica Foul on Neymar Goal kick No penalty
E Penalty Switzerland – Costa Rica Penalty Costa Rica Offside No penalty
F Penalty Sweden – South Korea Nothing Penalty Sweden Goal Sweden
F Goal Germany – South Korea Offside No offside Goal South Korea
H Penalty Senegal – Colombia Penalty Senegal Goal kick No penalty

Here are all 17 VAR decision of this World Cup’s first round.

When checking the games and assuming that VAR interferences did not happen, thus the referees initial decision would have been kept, you can clearly see different results. For instance, Spain would have had to leave the championship and France would not have made it first in their group. For Germans it would probably not have changed anything, due to Sweden’s game against Mexico and the resulting goal difference.

Notice that we calculated a penalty as a goal and didn’t include the effect of mistaken identities.

First Round without VAR – Spain would be out

Group A  Changed Matches Result Instead of
1. Uruguay  9  5:0 +5  Russia – Egypt 3:0 3:1
2. Russia  6  8:3 -5
3. Saudi Arabia  3  2:7 -5
4. Egypt  0  1:6 -5
Group B  Changed Matches Result Instead of
1. Portugal  7  5:3 +2  Iran – Spain 1:1 0:1
2. Iran  4  2:2 +0  Spain – Morocco 1:2 2:2
3. Morocco  3  2:3 -1  Portugal – Iran 1:0 1:1
4. Spain  2  5:6 -1
Group C  Changed Matches Result instead of
1. Denmark  7  2:0 +2  Australia – France 1:1 1:2
2. France  5  2:1 +1  Denmark – Australia 1:0 1:1
3. Peru  3  2:2 +0
4. Australia  1  1:4 -3
Group D Changed Matches Result Instead of
1. Croatien  9  7:1 +6
2. Argentina  4  3:5 -2
3. Nigeria  3  3:4 -1
4. Iceland  1  2:5 -3
Group E  Changed Matches Result Instead of
1. Brasilia  7  6:1 +5  Brasilia – Costa Rica 3:0 2:0
2. Switzerland  4  5:5 +0  Switzerland – Costa Rica 2:3 2:2
3. Serbia  3  2:4 -2
4. Costa Rica  3  3:6 -3
Group F  Changed Matches Result Instead of
1. Mexico  6  3:4 -1  Sweden – South Korea 0:0 1:0
2. Sweden  4  4:2 +2  Germany – South Korea 0:1 0:2
3. South Korea  4  2:2 +0
4. Germany  3  2:3 -1
Group G  Changed Matches Result instead of
1. Belgium  9  9:2 +7
2. England  6  8:3 -5
3. Tunisia  3  5:8 -3
4. Panama  0  2:11 -9
Group H  Changed Matches Result Instead of
1. Senegal  5  5:4 +1  Senegal – Colombia 1:1 0:1
2. Colombia  4  5:3 +2
3. Japan  4  4:4 +0
4. Poland  3  2:5 -3

The round of 16 without VAR

Due to this group results without VAR these following matches would have happened at the round of 16:

  • Uruguay – Iran
  • Portugal – Russia
  • Denmark – Argentina
  • Croatia – France
  • Brasilia – Sweden
  • Mexico – Switzerland
  • Belgium – Colombia
  • Senegal – England

The knock-out round

In the knock-out round we had only two scenes, in which VAR obviously influenced the decision of the main-referee. These were the withdrawn penalty in the game Sweden versus Switzerland in the round of 16 and the penalty, that was not given in the quarter-final match Brasil versus Belgium. In the first case, the decisions was changed and in the Brasil game VAR reviewed the situation and maintained the referee’s decision. In a third game, England versus Colombia, we found another scene which was apparently influenced by VAR. When Wilmar Barrios gave Jordan Henderson a head-check, the referee was actually looking in another direction. Afterwards, he put his hand on his ear, which is the sign for VAR-interference and the yellow card was then given to Barrios. We predict, that the initial decision would have been no card.

The VAR-decicions at the knock-out round

Stage Kind of decision Match Initial decision Chanced decision Result
Round of 16 Penalty Sweden – Switzerland Penalty Sweden Free kick Sweden No penalty
Round of 16 Red card England – Colombia Nothing Yellow Card Barrios (Colombia) Yellow Card Barrios
Quarterfinals Penalty Brasil – Belgium Goal kick Goal kick Not changed

Here you find the World Cup infografic

Here you find the Bundesliga infografic


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