Video assistant referee — rarely have three words elicited such controversy in football.
The spotlight has been placed firmly back on VAR in the Premier League in recent weeks, after Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) chief refereeing officer Howard Webb apologised to Arsenal and Brighton over “significant errors” made in fixtures last month, followed by Lee Mason leaving his role as a Premier League VAR official following the high-profile error.
No matter how many contentious decisions there might be, video technology in the Premier League is here to stay, but are there similar teething issues in other leagues across Europe? How differently do their systems operate? What lessons can be shared? Does VAR spark as much debate as it does in England?
The Athletic went behind the scenes at the Bundesliga’s VAR centre in Cologne — a centralised facility connected to all of Germany’s top-flight stadiums — to find out.
Germany has not been exempt from its own controversy on refereeing decisions this season.
“I think that in general we are using the VAR in Germany in an inflationary way,” said RB Leipzig coach Marco Rose after a controversial 2-1 defeat to Union Berlin which saw multiple VAR reviews. “We’re not doing the referees on the pitch any favours with it. All we are doing is watching television and constantly switching the channel.”
VfB Stuttgart manager Bruno Labbadia went one further following their recent 2-1 defeat to Freiburg via two penalties, declaring, “You always get screwed. I remain a total opponent of VAR. It’s ruining football.”
The challenge in Germany has been to change the wider perception among players and staff. A 2020 survey found that over 50 per cent of players were unhappy with the use of VAR in the Bundesliga, but the endeavour for continued improvement has been unrelenting year on year.
From a technology perspective, the Bundesliga model has operated differently from the rest of Europe since the start of the 2022-23 season.
Other leagues hire third-party technology companies. In Germany, the Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL) — the governing body for Germany’s top two divisions — has created a joint venture called Sportec Solutions with technology company Deltatre.
Crucially, this partnership allows the Bundesliga to keep its own data and technology infrastructure in-house and provides greater autonomy over video officiating.
“There is always a lot of emotion involved with VAR during a match day, but if you take a step back and look at the technology from a distance, we get lots of positive feedback,” says Lukas Glockner, head of referee technologies at Sportec Solutions.
The scale of infrastructure, technology, time and money invested in the Bundesliga’s operation highlights just how committed they are to ensuring that VAR and goal-line technology are as accurate as possible.
The extensive surveillance within each stadium includes 19 broadcast cameras for a standard match (and up to 23 for big games such as Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund) with an additional 14 goal-line technology cameras capturing images at 200 frames per second.
However, despite the myriad cameras and sophisticated technology, it is human intervention and judgement that is still required for the most contentious decisions.
So, how does the Bundesliga ensure it is the best at getting those decisions correct?
Clarity of language between on-field and video officials is paramount.
As part of its VAR training, the German Football Association (DFB) brought in professional pilots who gave lessons on how to communicate directly and clearly when giving commands and information, thus minimising the possibility of subjective interpretation.
“A very clear communication (between VAR officials, VAR operators, and on-field referees) is the key to reaching fast and precise decisions,” says Glockner. “The team needs to (figuratively) speak the same language and trust each other to do their respective jobs — especially when it comes to a complex process like offsides or multiple incidents.”
Clarity between match officials is something the Bundesliga feels it does well but communicating the decision process to the fans in the stadium is seen as a key area to improve.
In Germany, as in the Premier League, fans are not shown the incidents.
“From a broadcast perspective watching on TV, you get a decent sense of what’s happening during VAR, but in the stadium — or if you are following online — you don’t, and there are ways we can enhance that,” says Simon Farrant, director of strategic growth, sports data and officiating at Deltatre.
“I would love to be creative on how to better inform people in the stadium. In theory, you could send push alerts to fans’ phones, you could use smart glasses, you could even use virtual reality. With no limitations in place, that is the sort of stuff we could explore. It feels like an exciting opportunity but it will take time before we are in a position to do that.”
In the Premier League, Howard Webb has shown his support for the idea of open-mic communication for fans.
“I’m all for openness and transparency and trying to draw the curtain back on the decision-making,” Webb told Sky Sports. “When people can see the rationale for a decision and understand it better, they might not agree with the outcome, but at least they are more understanding and accepting of why.”
🗣️ “We’ll say ‘we got it wrong!'”
Former referee Howard Webb gives transparency on the use of VAR in the Premier League. 🎥🔎 pic.twitter.com/hWXpQoFtXR
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) February 3, 2023
FIFA agreed to trial the broadcasting of VAR decisions to the crowd and television audience, via the on-pitch referee, at tournaments over the next year, which started at the Club World Cup in Morocco.
It happened in the game between Al Ahly and Auckland City, with referee Ma Ning explaining to the crowd his reasons for overturning a penalty.
From the Bundesliga’s perspective, there aren’t many technological barriers that would prevent its referees from doing the same.
“We are ready to do anything — and this is easy to do, just one additional cable,” says Tom Janicot, director of video solutions at Sportec Solutions.
“It’s the same discussion with broadcasting the referee audio. But there are a lot of implications to doing something like that so that’s why these decisions take a long time.”
The risks of having referee audio have been widely discussed, including the potential for abuse or swearing to be picked up by the broadcast coverage. Furthermore, giving the referee a platform to be heard could cause further debate about the decisions, adding an unnecessary spotlight on a referee’s personality and temperament.
The common goal, however, remains the same for everyone — ensure VAR is workable and understandable for officials, clubs and fans.
“Everything we do to the VAR system is about working towards better and quicker decisions,” says Janicot. “We are looking at how long offside situations take, and breaking it down to see what we can improve.”
Although many football fans around the world remain sceptical about the increasing use of computers, cameras, and automation in football, the view from the Bundesliga is that technology is not the issue — making it more transparent is the key challenge.
“Technology is a key part of sport now and it’s here to stay,” said Glockner. “It proves that what we’re doing does deliver a benefit to the match.”
Rugby union’s television match officials (TMOs), tennis’ Hawk-Eye, and cricket’s decision review system (DRS) are all widely accepted but that is partly because they have been refined over a longer period than football’s VARs.
Countless cables, dozens of cameras, and a constant review process are evidence that football hopes to go the same way with VAR.
(All photos: Deltatre/Sportec Solutions)