How Uefa's treatment of Var is allowing referees to let games flow like no Euros before

·5-min read
A referee Ovidiu Hategan gives a red card to Poland's Grzegorz Krychowiak, right, during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group E match between Poland and Slovakia at Gazprom arena stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, June 14, 2021 - Anton Vaganov/Pool via AP
A referee Ovidiu Hategan gives a red card to Poland's Grzegorz Krychowiak, right, during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group E match between Poland and Slovakia at Gazprom arena stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, June 14, 2021 - Anton Vaganov/Pool via AP

The trend for referees and their assistants to manage the game, rather than simply officiate it, begins these days not at kick-off, nor even the pre-match captains’ meeting, but at the site visits that took place over previous weeks at every one of the 24 Euro 2020 squad camps.

Each competing nation will have been offered the presentation from Uefa's referees on what laws of the rapidly-changing game have been altered, and a reminder on what they might have overlooked as being an offence. Some will even have had a visit from the main man himself, the former Italian referee Roberto Rosetti, Uefa's chief refereeing officer and the high priest of the game’s guardians for Euro 2020.

Rosetti was considered an official of such unimpeachable standards that the former hospital managing director, was famously described by the now disgraced former Juventus managing director Luciano Moggi in tapped phone conversations as “too objective”. If ever there was a reputation to emerge enhanced from the Calciopoli scandal then it was that of Rosetti and his Uefa predecessor Pierluigi Collina, whom Moggi also railed against.

In their visits to squads across Europe, Rosetti’s team reminded players they would be watching for holding in the penalty areas. Secondly, the new Ifab handball law changes, which officially come into force on July 1 would be in effect for Euro 2020. There have been a number of tweaks but essentially the old law, that an accidental handball in any part of the build-up to a goal would result in it being disallowed, has gone. Only goals scored directly with accidental handballs, or scored “immediately after” an accidental handball, will now be disallowed.

So far, so good. After 10 games there has been a notable lack of refereeing controversy although that naturally can change at any turn. The first 10 games yielded 198 fouls, historic low number of infringements at this stage of any recent European Championship:

2021 – 198 fouls
2016 – 246 fouls
2012 – 296 fouls
2008 – 357 fouls
2004 – 387 fouls
2000 – 351 fouls
1996 – 374 fouls
1992 – 333 fouls
1988 – 355 fouls
1984 – 336 fouls
1980 – 341 fouls

Naturally the games with the greater foul counts come later, when the jeopardy of elimination is higher and players are prepared to take greater risks.

The notion of pre-tournament directives for referees and their assistants has always been disputed. Fifa and Uefa will always maintain that all it requires of their officials is that they apply the law in its current form. Their pre-tournament audiences with players and the media focused on clarifying the laws but also on what the European governing body now sees as the critical importance of the Video Assistant Referee (Var) to its operation.

Since February 2019, Uefa has now used Var at 463 matches, including the first 10 of the Euros, in men’s and women’s senior competitions and in Under-21 games. It has 103 stadiums in 35 countries licensed for the usage of Var in Uefa competitions. There are many more in Europe which have Var, especially in England, but will likely not see European competition, at least in the near future.

Uefa has the widest implementation Var by country of any Fifa confederation. Prior to the Euros, Uefa claimed 139 Var corrections in 453 Uefa competition matches. Of those, 62 were direct corrections – “factual decisions” like offside – while 88 came from reviews. From 2,522 incidents checked by Var – and not all incidents are checked – Uefa claims to have a 94.5 percent accuracy rate. High, but a long way off the utopia that was anticipated in the years before the alluring promise of “video technology” became an imperfect reality.

The crunch moment could come at any time for Var at this Euros and confidence in the system will be crucial in getting the difficult calls right. The Var officials are all based in Nyon, including Stuart Attwell, the English representative and his two Var assistant (Avar) colleagues. The referees and assistants are based in Istanbul, including England’s representatives Anthony Taylor and Michael Oliver. Taylor was in charge of the game in Copenhagen which featured the trauma of Christian Eriksen’s collapse. Oliver is still waiting for his first game. Match assignments for officials are made public 48 hours in advance with the referees and their assistants given no greater warning.

For the first time at the Euros, there is an Argentine team of officials, lead by referee Fernando Rapallini. It is part of an exchange that has seen a Spanish referee and officials invited to officiate games at the Copa America. There have always been suggestions that one day the confederations will grant complete freedom of movement to their most highly-rated officials, allowing them to take games in different confederations as required at club and international level.

For now though, the 19 referee teams from 14 countries wait at their Istanbul base to be told their games and then set off across Europe to their designated city – hoping it is not them whom the big controversy will befall.