Webb: Video assistant referee meant to fix 'clear and obvious' mistakes

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Webb says he took on his new role in the U.S. as head of video assistant refereeing because he wants to be part of change.

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It was 2009 when Thierry Henry famously stuck out his left hand to help push France past Ireland in a World Cup qualifying playoff, and it was in that moment Howard Webb was convinced something had to change.

“Henry’s handball against Ireland convinced me we needed assistance or to try a system,” said Webb, the longtime FIFA official who would oversee the 2010 World Cup final. “It seems not right that a goal stands when it was such a clear and obvious mistake and one ref had very little chance of calling it on the pitch.”

Webb now has a chance to usher in that change.

The 45-year-old Englishman heads up the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) program for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which is working toward a launch of live video replay in MLS later this year. Webb, who worked in the Premier League for 11 years, is convinced VAR can improve the game without taking away from it. It’s why he opted to step into this role after retiring from active refereeing and initially working for the English Professional Game Match Officials Board, and then as the director of referees for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

“This is a really huge development in the way that the game is officiated, probably the biggest change we are going to see in modern times,” Webb said. “… I was keen to become part of the conversation.”

Webb acknowledged there is a load of work to do to get it right. Those efforts started in earnest this preseason, when VAR was used in games across Major League Soccer. It has continued this year with live usage in the USL and in youth games. PRO recently oversaw the use of VAR in 34 games at the Generation Adidas Cup in the Dallas area.

Under the video replay guidelines, officials will look for “clear and obvious mistakes” in four areas: penalty kicks, red cards given or not given, goals scored and mistaken identity. The hope is to be correct on the calls that can change games, essentially.

Just a few hours after Webb spoke with FourFourTwo, the Champions League quarterfinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich turned on two Cristiano Ronaldo goals that would have been overturned with VAR due to offside. It highlighted how much some form of replay is needed in today’s soccer.

“We all share that love for the game,” Webb said. “The game is played with high tempo and an ebb and flow, but what we want to do is cut out situations where we make errors, and they’re made for good reason, referees have to make a decision in the blink of an eye. … There are situations with the speed and pace of [the] game and the way the game is played these days where it is ever more difficult to make all of the right decisions all of the time. You see it all over world and in MLS, there are occasions where clear mistakes are made. We have an open mind about video assistant referees provided it doesn’t change way games are played. What’s most appealing is that very much the emphasis is on minimum interference with maximum effect.”

There are, of course, kinks to be worked out still.

MLS fans were confused this preseason about what plays were being reviewed because there was little communication with the crowd and the video was not shown on the boards in the stadium. MLS commissioner Don Garber recently said FIFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB) rules prefer those replays are not shown. Webb said there is a possibility those guidelines could change in the future, but in the meantime, PRO is working on a system where the VAR officials communicate what is being reviewed and the outcome of the review to people who can relay that information to fans and media.

In addition, referees on the field currently review the calls with a monitor on the side of the field, a step that seems to slow the game down. Webb said the monitor is an option for officials to use when a call may include some subjectivity – like, for example, a red card. If the call includes an obvious decision, like a penalty called on a foul that was clearly outside the box or a goal scored when it was definitely offside, the referee will not need to use the monitor.

Webb said training allows time to see which referees are best suited for a VAR role, which includes monitoring the game on multiple screens and having “a calm head and a steady hand” to be able to check plays by zooming in, replaying and looking at multiple angles before opting for a review, all in live time as a game is still being played.

The biggest challenge to work out, however, is what constitutes “clear and obvious.” Webb said constant training is being done to inform officials on the standard for making a review, but subjectivity will always play a role in those decisions. The hope is that training and setting a standard minimizes interference and only causes reviews for the most obvious errors. Referees will check multiple calls in a game, but only opt to review the play if it falls under those “clear and obvious” guidelines. This winter during preseason, for example, the VAR officials in training checked more than 300 calls across 34 games but opted only to review 10 decisions.

“If people think VAR will solve every ref ill in the game, it won’t,” Webb said. “We hope it will be the case that at the end of day and after final analysis people recognize we reduced the number of clear and obvious errors. Will It solve everything? No, it won’t. … We need to be selective about where we need to be and in situations where people say, ‘Yep, we see why it’s there.’”

Those type of moments, like Henry’s handball in 2009, have long been apparent. A solution is now finally in sight.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.