For those who have kept a close eye on the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, it may not be apparent that FIFA’s first-ever live trial with Video Assistant Referees (VARs) is taking place.

But behind the scenes, seven VARs have been put through their paces during intensive training sessions as well the three matches that have taken place so far, when they have had up to 23 camera angles to assist the referees. 

“There’s been a lot of anticipation and a lot of build-up for the VAR project so to be part of this tournament is really exciting for me,” USA referee Mark Geiger said.

Geiger was the main VAR in the second round match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Kashima Antlers, while Dutch official Danny Makkelie took charge of overseeing the Hawk-Eye technology in the other two games.

“It has been fantastic to go live at a FIFA tournament after a lot of practice over the past year,” Makkelie said, who has also worked as a VAR in the Dutch Cup. 

“The communication and cooperation during these first matches has been excellent. There have been situations for us to check but so far no official reviews because the referees haven’t given the VARs any reason to intervene.”

VARs are trained to conduct checks throughout matches to see if a potential clear error has been made in a game-changing situation or if a serious offence has been missed. 

If no review is needed, then communication with the referee is not necessary – this is called a ‘silent check’. If a ‘check’ indicates that an incident should be reviewed, the referee must be informed immediately. In addition, if the referee himself suspects that a major error may have occurred, or something serious has been missed, he can request a review. Importantly, it is up to the referee to decide whether to have a review and the outcome of that review.

Another key principle is that referees must always make a decision, including the decision that no offence has occurred, regardless of the existence of VARs.  

“We have to do what we’ve always done,” Hungary’s Viktor Kassai said, who was the main referee in the match featuring Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Club America.

“All decisions are to be made by the referee and assistant referees and then, only if it’s necessary, the VAR can support with a blatant mistake. It’s a good feeling to know there is someone to help, but at the same time we are not thinking about the new system when we are officiating a match.”

Massimo Busacca, FIFA’s Head of Refereeing, believes ongoing training for the match officials will be crucial. 

“It is a new experience for the referees to have someone from the outside give them information that may contradict their own reading of a situation,” Busacca said. 

“Over time, through matches and through training sessions where we replicate match situations and use the latest technology, the understanding between referees and VARs will continue to improve.”

The technology is there to be used for correcting clear errors in match-changing decisions in line with the experiment protocol drawn up by The IFAB – football’s law-making body responsible for overseeing the two-year experiments. The FIFA Club World Cup serves as a test to see if refinements need to be made to the protocol before live trials begin globally in 2017.