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Okay, so what the heck is up with VAR?

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Here’s our quick explainer and review of VAR, which hasn’t been too kind to Fiorentina thus far.

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - Serie A
That’s about how we feel about it.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Serie A is the first big European league to implement the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). In theory, this is a very good idea. That it’s met with some early resistance is partly due to the officiating crews’ adjustment period of adapting to a new style (which is completely understandable) and partly due to many fans’ natural inclination to hate and fear change.

That said, it’s also hard to blame Fiorentina fans who are still fuming about several incidents in Sunday’s clash with Atalanta. Referee Luca Pairetto’s use of VAR seemed very inconsistent; as the son of Calciopoli-tainted official Luca Pairetto, it’s disappointing but not surprising that pertinent accusations have been flying thick and fast from the Viola faithful.

Instead of heaping more vitriol on the refs, we’d rather have a look at how VAR works, in theory and in practice, so we can better judge whether mistakes have been made in its application.

Alright, smart guy. What’s VAR?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee. He’s effectively replaced the goal line officials. The way it works is that a referee in a remote location watches the action unfold on camera. When the head referee wants clarification on something, he can consult VAR via headset and get a response from someone who can watch incidents in replays and slow-motion.

When does one use VAR?

The smart ass answer is, “Whenever one wants.” Since that’s not actually helpful, let’s try to do a little better. So far, it’s been most visible on awarding or denying penalties, double-checking offsides, and ensuring that cards are awarded correctly. For example, the first use of VAR in Serie A history was to go back and give Crotone a penalty against Juventus after the head ref was unsure whether or not to point to the spot.

So what does everyone do while the ref’s talking with VAR?

Not much. It’s actually been rather refreshing to see teams not mob the ref whenever there’s a penalty shout or a questionable goal or a hard foul, because he’s busy consulting the VAR on the headset, which doesn’t work when there are a dozen dudes yelling at him. If nothing else, that’s been pretty cool.

How long does it take VAR to reach a decision?

That depends. There’ve been a few that took way too long—Miranda’s trip on Simeone at Inter Milan in the first round of games—but it’s usually a minute or two. That can lead to some weird moments, like when a referee calls back the action for a penalty or an offside offense that happened moments earlier, but it’ll probably speed up as the officiating crews get more comfortable with it.

Man, this sounds great, because now there won’t ever be any refereeing mistakes in Serie A again.

Slow your roll there, hoss. There’s still plenty of room for mistakes. For example, in the match between Torino and Bologna (also in week 1), Domenico Maietta bundled Andrea Belotti over in the area. The ball fell to Granata winger Alex Berenguer, who had an open net to finish into. Before he could, though, referee Davide Massa blew the whistle for offsides on Belotti, killing the play. The only problem was that Belotti was onside, as he’d run in behind after a loose backpass from Mattia Destro; that he was behind the defense didn’t matter, as his team hadn’t played the ball in. By blowing the play dead for offside after the linesman raised his flag instead of allowing it to continue, call in the VAR, and come back to the incident once clarity had been achieved, either the penalty or the goal could have been awarded. Instead, the ref stopped play.

Well, one mistake in the first week isn’t too bad, and at least they improv—

Nah, brah. Fiorentina got clowned this weekend on this.

Oh yeah. What happened with all that?

Ugh. There were three penalty incidents for the Viola that referee Luca Pairetto ignored. The first was the penalty for Atalanta; Josip Iličić went down under suspiciously light contact from Germán Pezzella. Pairetto pointed to the spot and refused to consult VAR, despite the insistence of the Gigliati players. Marco Sportiello saved the ensuing penalty, though, in a perfect illustration of Rasheed Wallace’s eternal truth of “Ball don’t lie.” It was still a clear failure, though, on Pairetto’s part to double-check the action.

Next, Davide Astori was obviously pulled down by the jersey on a corner kick. While one expects a certain amount of skulduggery on a corner, this was way over the line. Once again, though, Pairetto refused to consult VAR, and play continued.

Shortly before full time, Gil Dias knifed into the area, where goalkeeper Etrit Berisha approached him. The Portuguese winger took a touch, and Berisha stretched out for the ball and missed it, instead grabbing Dias’ ankle and bringing him down. True to form, Pairetto ignored VAR and waved play on, despite the obvious need to at least review the incident.

So the ref can still brush off incidents by refusing to call in to VAR?

Yup.

That’s the only way a ref can throw things off under this new system, though, at least.

About that. Remember that Torino example? A jumpy ref can still blow things dead too soon, which renders VAR powerless. Basically, VAR can go back and fix things, but can only do so within the flow of the game; the head ref can still curtail that ability to repair mistakes.

Huh. It sounds like the refs should just let things play out, then check in with VAR and let the video guy cook.

Yeah, it sure sounds that way. It’s a new system, though, so the officials are probably still trying to get used to it. Let’s try to stick with Hanlon’s Razor here: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

So once they’re used to using VAR, Italian refs are going to be the best in the world, right?