FIFA World Cup

Fifa World Cup: With VAR, attributing defeat to refereeing may become a thing of the past

Video Assistant Referees will not only get calls right, it will become a check against anticipated discrimination.

African fans have always seen match officiating at the World Cup as one reason why their teams fail to do better than they have done so far. Now technology is set to come to the aid of African teams and their fans during the World Cup in Russia.

Earlier this year, football’s umbrella body, the International Federation for Football Associations (FIFA), announced that it will use the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for World Cup matches in Russia. It is one of the rule changes at the 2018 World Cup. The other allows a fourth substitute when the game goes into extra time.

BBC Sport described the VAR as,

basically like another referee’s assistant – but one that has access to TV replays from a multitude of angles.

A VAR will support the head referee in each of the World Cup’s 64 matches. The video assistant referee team, all top FIFA referees in their own right, are located in a centralised video operation room in Moscow. The system involves them watching the action remotely and then drawing the match referee’s attention to officiating mistakes.

Described as an “historic step for greater fairness in football”, the VAR will aim to reduce unfairness caused by “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” in relation to:

  • Goals and offences leading up to a goal;
  • Penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty;
  • Direct red card incidents only; or
  • Mistaken identity (when the referee cautions or sends off the wrong player of the offending team).

The VAR is, particularly, intriguing because a year-long study by Belgian University KU Leuven shows that the VAR increases officiating accuracy from 93% to 98.8% and time lost using the system is just an average of 55 seconds. The university study is based on over 1,000 games where the VAR was used.

Rectifying poor calls

While, several analysts have focused on the VAR rectifying poor calls during matches at the 2018 World Cup, few point to why African fans (along with fans of other less favoured teams) welcome the use of the VAR. African fans have been alleging biased refereeing decisions for years at the World Cup – a case in point was in Italy in 1990 when Cameroon were controversially ousted by England. Two arguable calls went England’s way in that memorable quarter final against Cameroon prompting protests and riots in Cameroon by frustrated fans.

At the 1998 World Cup in France, match officials contentiously overruled two Cameroon goals in a game that Cameroon finally drew 1-1 with Chile, sending the African team home after the first round. Many Africans still believe that the officials were wrong to overrule those goals.

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, African fans felt that Nigeria were on the receiving end of particularly poor, “biased” refereeing in their match against France. Perhaps, with the VAR, results would have been different in each of those cases.

Social perception

Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider’s attribution theory partly explains why African fans feel hard done by. More than 50 years ago, Heider wrote a treatise on the processes that impact social perception, on how ordinary people explain events as they do.

That treatise is an excellent tool for how the African World Cup fan explains the World Cup and failure of African teams.

This means that Cameroon’s victories on the way to meeting England at the 1990 World Cup were attributed to the team’s great play, and their ability, among other virtues. The African fans would most likely have cited forward Roger Milla‘s brilliance, the team’s collective speed and their individual talent as reasons for Cameroon’s victories.

However, they would not attribute the defeat against England to England’s talent, skill, tactics or other dispositions. For negative results like that, Heider informs us, attribution is no longer made to dispositions but to situations. Thus, the attribution or causes become poor match officiating, the systemic racism that denies African teams a chance, and so on.

Fans’ rationale

Heider’s attribution theory provides us ways to understand the rationale of the African fan at the World Cup. However, that’s about to change with the introduction of the VAR. Rather than concluding that a non-African referee discriminates against Africans, the VAR becomes the check against such anticipated discrimination.

Thus, the VAR will not only get calls right, it will make things fair and do so by creating an impression of fairness. At least, attributing defeat or failure to refereeing may become a thing of the past. Although, Heider argues, there could be newer attributions. This time, however, newer attributions may be the weather, the hotel, or other perceived disruptions.

Those are somewhat more palatable than blaming match officials. One thing we know is that improvements to the game often advance fairness. FIFA’s decision to play the final two group games simultaneously reduced possibilities of fixed results after Germany and Austria were widely believed to have fixed the result of their game at the 1982 World Cup which eliminated Algeria. So welcome to the VAR.

Chuka Onwumechili, Professor of Communications, Howard University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.