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As VAR Makes Headlines In England, A Look At How It Has Improved Refereeing Standards In Serie A

VAR is relatively new in England but it has been used for a while in Italy
VAR is relatively new in England but it has been used for a while in Italy

A small piece of English football history was made on Tuesday evening when VAR (video assistant referee) technology was used for the first time ever to alter a decision in a competitive match. Kelechi Iheanacho was initially adjudged to be offside during Leicester’s 2-0 win over Fleetwood Town in the FA Cup third-round replay, but referee Jon Moss referred to Mike Jones on the sidelines and – after reviewing the video – duly overturned the offside call, allowing the goal to stand.

As the system is trialled in the English FA Cup, now seems as good time as any to discuss how VAR is working in Serie A, where it has been used for all domestic action since the beginning of the campaign. The subject of refereeing decisions is always a hot topic on the peninsula, with hours and hours of time on TV, in bars and in the newspapers dedicated to examining calls in favour and against each team.

It was inevitable then, that when the system was introduced at the start of 2017/18, that there would be controversy. Referees, players and Coaches had to quickly adapt and become accustomed to a major change in the game, and there were initial mistakes. Supporters at the match and watching at home on television were confused as to what was happening when a decision went to VAR, the whole process taking far too long during a confusing pause.

Controversial incidents were occuring and play was continuing, leaving Serie A bosses livid when the new system was not being consulted, and there were occasions when they did not agree with the final call even after the replay had been studied. Lazio Coach Simone Inzaghi complained most vociferously about the system with reports even having suggested that the Biancocelesti were ready to quit the league altogether in protest.

“With the two points from today, we would’ve had an extra seven points this season without VAR,” the coach told Mediaset Premium after his side were awarded a penalty versus Inter in December, only to have it rescinded. “There are regrets, but evidently VAR is not fortunate for Lazio. I agree it wasn’t a penalty, but the fact remains there have been decisions in our favour where the VAR was not even checked, so it’s inconsistent.”

However, not everyone was so furious with the change, as supporters began to see things improving. As the season moved towards the end of 2017, anecdotal evidence suggested that the process had become slicker and mistakes had become fewer. This was confirmed by Nicola Rizzoli – an Italian referee who has recently become responsible for administration of the officials – as he explained some statistics from the campaign in progress.

 In a meeting held in Milan with Coaches from 16 out of the 20 teams, Rizzoli went through 11 errors made from 60 VAR corrections. One of those mistakes was when the referee stopped the play too early, one was about possession in attack, there was a penalty, six handballs and two offsides but only only seven of the mistakes would’ve changed the result. The chief revealed that with the technology the league has made a 1% error rate, but without it there would have been 5.6 mistakes made on average every 100 decisions.

He also revealed that penalties have increased by 5.5%, however there have been fewer red cards overall. Perhaps the most telling stat in terms of dismissals is that no player has been sent off for protesting a decision, compared to five at this time last year.

While less players have been expelled, VAR has also helped to punish players for incidents that have previously gone undetected. A good example of this was at the end of Cagliari’s match with Fiorentina back in December. Rossoblu forward Joao Pedro had deliberately stamped on the foot of Federico Chiesa, leaving the youngster on the ground in pain. The official had not seen the incident but decided to consult VAR, resulting in an entirely justified red card.

These sorts of incident will quickly dissipate if players realise that they will no longer be able to get away with deliberate actions behind the referee’s back. Furthermore, if the Italian referees association (AIA) continue to hold open and honest meetings with the Coaches then things can only improve.

Monday’s discussion in Milan was declared positive by all the bosses present, and even Simone Inzaghi was starting to come around to the idea by the end. Although he declared himself to still be an opponent of the system, he explained to Corriere dello Sport that he saw that VAR could “bring benefits” to football after a “calm discussion and an admission of errors already made” by Rizzoli.

The newspaper report suggested that such an open and honest meeting between Coaches and referees had not been held for years, and the quotes coming out of the encounter suggest that it was very positive indeed. If English football is to adopt this new system, putting measures such as this in place to give all parties concerned an opportunity for open and honest dialogue will be vitally important.

It won’t stop the conspiracy theories in Italy, but VAR seems to be serving its purpose.

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