Total Refereeing: How VAR was Born and Raised in Dutch Football

As Mike van der Roest sat in front of the television at his home in the Dutch city of Alkmaar on June 27, 2010, his heart suddenly filled with compassion. He was watching the World Cup match between Germany and England, a game best remembered for Frank Lampard's "ghost goal" and England's sorry elimination.

Despite Lampard's long-range shot hitting the underside of the crossbar and clearly bouncing over the line, Jorge Larrionda, the Uruguayan referee, waved play on. It denied England the goal that would have brought them level in the match and, an hour later, Germany were 4-1 winners while England were heading home.

In common with supporters in the stands in Bloemfontein, and across England, Van der Roest was incredulous. But unlike the fans whose St George's Cross face-paint was smudged with tears, Van der Roest's main sympathy was for the referee. Why was it that the only man who could actually do something about the incorrect decision was also the one person denied access to the footage?

The injustice of Lampard's non-goal, and the subsequent vilification of Larrionda, set Van der Roest, a lead member for referees at Dutch Football Association (KNVB), on a one-man mission to bring video assistance to the game.

Eight years later, as most major leagues now seem on the brink of introducing television assistance for referees, it is a little known fact that the country that brought us "Total Football" was also the birthplace of the current march towards total refereeing. It all started that day in Van der Roest's living room.

"The first thing that comes to the referee's heart is 'ouch' because every referee will understand the big, big decision that was going to potentially have an impact on this result," Van der Roest told Newsweek. "If you see that happening you want to shout out, 'It's a goal!' or 'It's not a goal!' We want to help out but it's just not possible."

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Manuel Neuer at Free State Stadium, Boemfontein, South Africa, June 27. Referee Jorge Larrionda failed to award England the "ghost goal." Cameron Spencer/Getty

In 2011, a previously reluctant FIFA, world football's governing body, finally yielded to campaigns to introduce goal-line technology, which would have ruled in favor of Lampard and saved the reputation of Larrionda. Goal-line technology is now a permanent fixture in the top tiers across the world, while the next step—the Video Assistant Referee (VAR)—is also now being trialed across Europe, including in the English League Cup and FA Cup. It is expected to be used at the World Cup this summer.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) will decide next month whether to allow VAR systems to be used worldwide. If so, the German Bundesliga plans to extend its use next season, while the English Premier League will make a decision in April.

It represents due reward for Van der Roest's persistence.

"We started thinking about how we could support the referee in his difficult job," he says. "We wanted to improve fair play in football in general, to have justice done to decisions that were taken by referees and the decisions that can be seen as clearly wrong and disputed."

The KNVB set up a project group, led by Van der Roest, to look into ways in which technology may be able to prevent incidents such as the one in Bloemfontein.

"There was a big discussion after 2010 on GLT, and Fifa was rather—let's say—reluctant to have technology in football, but the GLT argument got us further," he says. "We thought this could be the first step to bring technology into football, to help the referee.

"One question I got was, 'Why did the Dutch start?' And I say, why not? Because if you have the horizon there, and you're thinking about the horizon, and you're trying to figure out what it looks like, you can only find out by starting to move towards the horizon. So this is basically the philosophy behind it: looking for improvement of the game, looking, of course, to maintain the natural flow of the game, but helping the referee and bringing fair play."

VAR is currently used for "clear and obvious errors," according to English referee's chief Mike Riley. The on-pitch referee is constantly in touch with an assistant in the official team who is watching live match footage in a studio based off-site. All five officials—the on-pitch referee, the two on-pitch assistants, the "fourth" official beside the dugouts, and the video referee—are in constant contact with one another.

VAR Training
FIFA referees Andres Cunha, foreground, and Wilson Sampaio at the headquarters of the South American Football Confederation in Luque, Paraguay, September 22, 2017. NORBERTO DUARTE/AFP/Getty

Any of the on-pitch referees can ask the VAR to review decisions but there are only four situations in which the VAR can get involved: uncertainty surrounding goals, penalties, straight red cards and in the case of mistaken identity. The VAR can also flag something the on-pitch referee may have missed entirely. A pitch-side monitor allows the referee to review decisions for himself, and he will have the final decision.

But it didn't start this way.

"At first, it was everything, every incident, but then we found out that this scope was too big, so you cannot involve all the laws in this project, you have to bring it down to the match-changing situations," Van der Roest says.

To begin with, the project team conducted "offline testing." They did mock trials with VAR in the Eredivisie, the top tier in the Netherlands, in the 2012-13 season, acting out how the process would work.

Though that was a success, Van der Roest says that the frustrations were only just beginning and that the game's senior governing bodies were resistant to change.

"We were doing a lot of lobbying," Van der Roest says. "In the beginning, there was Fifa with [Sepp] Blatter who was not really in favour and not really willing to hear the presentation we had for him and Fifa, and [former Uefa president Michel] Platini was against it, too."

But the downfall of Blatter in the summer of 2015 offered a major boost to Van der Roest's campaign. Blatter's replacement, Gianni Infantino, was "very, very pro technology" Van der Roest says. Infantino invited the Dutch delegation to FIFA's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland in September 2015, where they presented the findings of their testing and philosophy. It proved to be a hit.

"And then it went really fast," Van der Roest says.

The project group put together a plan to implement VAR in a live environment, completing IFAB's paperwork to be granted permission. In the summer of 2016, VAR was used for the first time in the KNVB Cup, to widespread support.

Gianni Infantino
FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the Vietnam Football Federation in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 8. Infantino has helped introduce technology into football worldwide. GIANG HUY/AFP/Getty

"It's a big discussion because football is quite a conservative sport," says Willem Vissers, a leading football writer for Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. "Referees make a lot of mistakes and many times people are not satisfied about decisions. Referees are deciding matches and not the players anymore so there was a scream to have the VAR and the video referee in football."

Vissers describes the work of the KNVB as "quite revolutionary" and says he supports the use of technology in football. However, he says he also sympathises with those who fear its inefficient application may lead to more confusion, citing a controversial incident in a Dutch cup match this month.

In a game between Willem II and Roda, a late goal for Roda, which was ruled valid by the on-field referee, ended up being chalked off because of a handball earlier in the move, only spotted by the video assistant. Willem II eventually won the match after a penalty shootout and Roda are said to be considering legal action due to the potential lost earnings in the cup.

"There is still a little confusion," Vissers says. "Everybody thought that when you have the video assistant everything is clear, but that's not true because there are many things which are still doubtful."

VAR's introduction to English football has had its teething problems too. Though most commentators agreed that the correct decision was reached when Leicester City's Kelechi Iheanacho scored the first goal to be awarded after video intervention in an FA Cup match against Fleetwood Town, there have been plenty of complaints.

West Brom manager Alan Pardew said VAR was disruptive; Chelsea's Antonio Conte said there was a lack of clarity. Similarly some supporters and members of the media say it is unclear when VAR is actually being used by the referee.

Referee Jon Moss
Jon Moss, center, at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, January 16. Moss awards Leicester a goal via VAR. Michael Regan/Getty

None of the complaints are new to Van der Roest.

"That's the first reaction everybody has," he says. "They say: 'It's taken too long, why is it taking so long?' But I keep repeating that if you watch a match, the net playing time is 60 minutes: 30 minutes are lost by all those incidents without VAR."

He adds: "If you look at the decision-making time on VAR, if you train them well, one-and-a-half minutes is consumed to get the decision over to a referee. And if you take the time to make sure the correct decision is made then even one-and-a-half minutes is very welcome because that is enhancing the game. Everybody will understand that speed of taking the correct decision is irrelevant if the incorrect decision is taken."

Van der Roest says that referees have non-verbal ways to make clear when VAR is being used. He says the referee should hold one arm straight in the air "like a policeman" and point to his earpiece with the other. Should the referee decide to conduct his own review he will indicate a TV outline and will make the same gesture if a decision is overturned after video consultation. The gestures will become more familiar as implementation is increased.

VAR is still only in its trial period in the Netherlands, as it is in England, but the Dutch FA is on the verge of implementing it in the Eredivisie. The final decision will be made on March 19 when the KNVB meets for its annual General Assembly at its headquarters in Zeist, where Van der Roest says they are relying on the biggest stakeholders: the clubs.

"It is a money issue like everything else in life," he says. "The clubs are a big stakeholder in this entire competition, so the clubs need to be supportive to the finances that we need to invest and bring in VAR in the Eredivisie."

Both Vissers and Van der Roest hope VAR will be given the green light, even as both accept it may need to be reviewed in the future as feedback continues to come in.

"It won't stay like this forever," Van der Roest says. "I'm expecting the experiences of all the leagues throughout the world will see the IFAB reconsider particular ways of dealing with VARs."

But as long as he doesn't have to see another "ghost goal" incident and another referee's reputation damaged, Van der Roest will be happy.

Countries Trialing VAR

Netherlands—KNVB Cup

England—League Cup, FA Cup

Germany—Bundesliga

Italy—Serie A

France—Coupe de France, French League Cup

Portugal—Portuguese Cup, Primeira Liga