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Howard Webb, PRO testing new VAR technologies with cautious mind

PRO has tested offside-line technology and on-field referee announcements, and it is looking at central hub for VAR.

Sep 29, 2019; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Howard Webb of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) adresses the media in regards to officiating in the MLS and the use of video assisted refereeing (VAR) before the game between the Atlanta United and the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

MONTREAL — Howard Webb doesn’t want to over-referee the game of soccer.

“VAR is interesting, topical and relevant, but good officiating starts on the field,” Webb said. “It starts with the decisions made by the referees and the assistant referees. We’ve said to them from day one that regardless of if there’s a VAR involved in that game, they should officiate as normal.”

Webb, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization, held a round table discussion with media in Montreal Sunday. It was his first meeting of this kind with members of the media.

Webb continued by saying that referees shouldn’t consider the VAR before making a decision on a play. Despite some frustration voiced by fans and media, the Englishman, who was responsible for the arrival of VAR in MLS, called the technology a “success story.”

“When you look at any league who doesn’t use VAR, you’ll see every week goals that are scored where players are offside or there’s a handball or a foul that isn’t called,” he said. “That’s inevitable because of the speed of the game even if you’ve got good officials working the games.”

“The days of goals being scored that are clearly offside and allowed to stand or plays scoring with a hand and that goal not being cancelled are pretty much things of the past.”

Mistakes in VAR

On the topic of mistakes in VAR situations, Webb acknowledged that PRO had 24 missed reviews out of 378 games.

“We don’t get them all right,” Webb said. “But we have to remember that we’re asking the VAR to do something really quite interesting: We’re asking them to walk quite a fine line. We’re asking them to intervene on clear and obvious situations only.”

Webb thinks “clear and obvious” has a simple definition. If you had to watch a camera angle more than twice in order to make a decision, that situation would not be clear and obvious.

“It needs to almost jump off the screen on first viewing that it’s wrong,” he said. “If you put it on the screen and a reasonably minded fan goes: ‘Yes, I can see why that’s being overturned.’”

Despite that, Webb admitted the concept of clear and obvious has been “the biggest challenge of all.”

“The reason that exists is that we never wanted, in this objective game, the game to be refereed,” Webb said. “If you’ve got a decision that is 50-50, the referee gives it and the VAR steps in and the referee changes the call. You’ve got 50 percent of the people thinking it was right in the first place, who are really disappointed that the VAR stepped in to change what they thought was a good decision to a bad decision.

“We didn’t want to fundamentally change [soccer] or to enhance it, we wanted to capture those real standout errors that people remember. [Errors] that changed games, that hurt me when I made bad decisions where you could look at the screen and say, ‘Wow that’s such a clear error, if only we had VAR to change it.’”

Offside line technology 

Even though Webb is clear about not over-refereeing soccer, PRO has been considering additions to VAR. The organization is looking into the implementation of an offside line technology. PRO has started testing it in 13 games behind the scenes over the past few weeks.

“The limited amount of cameras that we use in MLS creates a bit of a challenge,” Webb said. “We don’t have as many cameras as some other leagues that use VAR”

Webb added that broadcasters often use cameras at the 18-yard line as tight angle cameras. This creates an issue for the implementation of offside line technology.

“We would like, of course, all the 18-yard line cameras to stay across the line,” Webb said. “So if we were to go with technology next year, we’d have to look at installing fixed cameras on the 18-yard line.”

In-stadium announcements, potential hub for VAR 

In some cases, Webb and his team have been looking at what other North American sports have in store. PRO is considering referee announcements of VAR decisions through stadiums’ public announcement systems, as is done in other leagues.

“We want the in-stadium experience to be the best that it can be,” Webb said. “We have been experimenting at a couple of venues like in other North American sports so that the stadium audience can hear what the referee is saying in relation to why the review took place.”

Another PRO project would be to build a centralized video operation room (VOR). The National Basketball Association examines video reviews in its Secaucus, N.J., offices, while the National Hockey League has its replay war room in Toronto.

MLS’ current setup has a VOR set up in every market with a VAR during games. This would also deploy supervisors at each game in an effort to ensure that mistakes would be minimized.

“The advantage of [a centralized VOR] being that we can brief them before every game, we can then do a hot debrief immediately,” Webb said. “We can use a slightly smaller group of people as well, so that would always aid the consistency.”

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