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World Cup's Video-Assisted Referee System Receives Praise, Criticism


The United States plays France today in the Women's World Cup. The U.S. is ranked No. 1, but France is going to be playing on its home turf. NPR's Laurel Wamsley has been reporting on the World Cup, and she has this story about controversy in the tournament over how referees use video to review crucial plays.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When the U.S. played Sweden last week, midfielder Lindsey Horan pushed the ball into the goal from short range and scored.



WAMSLEY: As the crowd cheered, a group of referees away from the action in a booth reviewed the tape to make sure it really was a goal. The idea behind video assistant referee technology, or VAR, is to give refs some help doing a tough and stressful job. The referee on the field has an earpiece so the team in the booth can talk to her and say what they saw.

VAR was used in a World Cup for the first time in the men's tournament last summer in Russia. Soccer's governing body, FIFA, promotes the technology as a way to reduce bad or missed calls, to give refs an extra set of eyes to see things they otherwise couldn't. As FIFA explains in a video...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The guideline, minimum interference for maximum benefit.

WAMSLEY: But at the Women's World Cup so far, the interference has been more than minimal. VAR has been a major factor in several games - goals waved off after a player is deemed offside by mere centimeters, penalty kicks retaken after goalkeepers moved off their lines a split second too early, fouls that perhaps looked more serious in slow-motion than they were in the fever of the action.

Fans have grown accustomed to seeing the ref invoke a review by VAR by drawing a rectangle with her hands in the shape of a TV screen. It's the officiating equivalent of phoning a friend, and it can stop the game for minutes as the referees consult each other, as in this recording by FIFA.


UNIDENTIFIED REFEREE #1: ...Natural position...

UNIDENTIFIED REFEREE #2: That's all right. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED REFEREE #1: (Unintelligible) For number 4.



UNIDENTIFIED REFEREE #3: Perfect for me. OK, now we'll check...

WAMSLEY: Many have criticized VAR for ruining the tempo of the game and generating penalties from soft fouls. FIFA even held a press conference this week to address the criticism. Pierluigi Collina is the chairman of FIFA's refereeing committee. He showed a replay of how a goal by France in the tournament's opening match was ruled offside after review.

PIERLUIGI COLLINA: Honestly, for a human being, it's almost impossible to see this.

WAMSLEY: But, he says, once they have the technology to see that the French player was offside, it's not possible to ignore it.

COLLINA: It's difficult to say that this is more offside, and they should be not considered because, I repeat, on the rules of the game, it's not written that an offside is big or small. It's an offside.

WAMSLEY: But VAR is changing the game. Rules rarely enforced in the past are now being called after review. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis thinks VAR has made the game more fair.

JILL ELLIS: Why have a rule if you're not going to enforce it? So if someone's off their line, they're off their line. Sitting here as a coach in the biggest tournament the world, I think having the capacity to review situations - yeah, I think it's a part of every other sport. And I think there's too much at stake to not have it in our sport.

WAMSLEY: FIFA referee chairman Collina says that VAR won't always offer the final word, and officiating in soccer involves judgment calls.

COLLINA: This is part of football, where not all the decisions are black or white, extreme. There is room for interpretation.

WAMSLEY: That means that for soccer fans, technology won't put an end to arguing over the referees' decisions.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.