Sandro Meira Ricci had high hopes of ending his career by taking charge of the World Cup final. It was not to be. His claims were overlooked, and it has sent him into retirement with a pang of regret. But refereeing’s loss is the debate’s gain. Because Ricci is now free to give his opinion on his experiences. The most fascinating aspect comes from Russia 2018, where Ricci was out in the middle for three games, and also operated as the video referee in others. His sincerity, then, gives us a priceless insight into the reality of VAR.
One thing which is immediately apparent from his review of the World Cup refereeing. The discussion on VAR has focused on the technology. But he stresses the human side of things. From one angle, this is predictable enough. “Referees are not yet accustomed to having their decisions changed,” he says, “and not all of them react well to a VAR intervention.” This could have been foreseen. What may be more surprising is his account of the emotional side of those doing the intervening.
“We had two years of prolonged training on the VAR function. And in training, it is the easiest thing in the world to call the referee and as him to take another look at an incident. But in a game, it’s a very different story. Every time something happens which may be worthy of a second look, the silence in the VAR room turns to hysteria. Even sitting down, your heart beat jumps from a normal 60 to over 100. The pressure to give an answer can impose itself on the necessity to be precise. Before the game, the button used to call the ref looks enormous. Now it practically disappears in the middle of the screens. Your thinking can be influenced by a desire to back up the referee’s decision. The language barrier can also interfere. Clear cut things suddenly become doubtful. There is an element of insecurity, because the VAR operator is made of flesh and blood as well.”
This is a magnificently sincere account from someone who has been there and done it – and who confesses that, as the video referee, he failed to intervene when England should have had a penalty for a foul on Harry Kane against Tunisia. For the reasons given above, he suddenly became consumed with doubt and he let the moment pass.
Ricci is a firm supporter of VAR. But his account highlights why it will never fulfil the hopes of its more radical proponents. It will never bring about perfection- the laws of football are simply too subjective, too open for interpretation to have anything near a consensus on what perfection would entail. And, however much technology is employed, the human element is always present.
Introducing VAR in the World Cup was a huge gamble. Broadly speaking, though, it seems to have met with general acceptance. Ricci would like more clarity on what actually constitutes a clear error, but has no doubt that VAR is here to stay. He is quite sure, though, on one point. “As well as being more pleasurable, being the on field ref is much easier than operating VAR. With VAR there is no excuse.”