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Explainer: How the controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR) really works

Last updated 2 months ago | By Robert Abong'o

Tottenham Hotspur's English striker Harry Kane was fouled in the penalty area under a challenge from Newcastle United's English defender Jamaal Lascelles but after a VAR (Video Assistant referee) review no penalty is the decision shown on the scoreboard during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, on August 25, 2019. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

Video Assistant Referee or what is popularly known as VAR is one of the most controversial systems introduced in football.  

VAR is basically a match official in association football who reviews decisions made by the head referee with the use of video footage and a headset for communication.

Standard Sport has details from the international governing body of football, FIFA, to demystify how VAR works in different countries.

When is VAR used?

Three main instances (plus one administrative) have been recognised as game-changing.


The purpose of the VAR is to assist the centre referee determine whether there was a violation, that means a goal should not be awarded. 

Penalty decisions 

VAR also ensures no incorrect decisions are made in conjunction with the award/non-awarding of a penalty kick. This is in regard to handballs and fouls inside the 18-yard box. 

Direct red card incidents

The role of the VAR is to ensure that no wrong decisions are made in conjunction with sending off or not sending off a player.

Bundesliga Referee Bibiana Steinhaus (2L) and referee Thorben Siewer (L) sit at the Video Assist Center (VAC) during the Media Workshop "Video Assistant" at the Cologne Broadcasting Center in Cologne, western Germany, on August 05, 2019. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

Mistaken identity 

If the referee books or sends off the wrong player, or is unsure which player should be cautioned, VAR will inform the referee so that the correct player can be disciplined.

How does VAR work?


Incident occurs

The referee informs the VAR, or vice-versa - VAR recommends to the referee that a decision/incident should be reviewed.


Review and advice by the VAR

The video footage is reviewed by the VAR, who then advises the referee via headset what the video shows.


Decision or action is taken

The referee decides to examine the video footage on the side of the field before making a decision, or the referee accepts the information from the VAR and takes the appropriate action.

In this file photo taken on January 9, 2018 French refeere Amaury Delerue (front) takes part in a presentation of video assisted refereeing (VAR) before the French League Cup football match between Nice and Monaco at the Allianz Riviera Stadium in Nice, southern France. [AFP PHOTO / VALERY HACHE]

Background of VAR

The Australian League (A-League) became the first to VAR system in a top flight professional club competition on April 7, 2017.

The first VAR intervention in a professional league game was witnessed the next day, April 8, when Wellington Phoenix played Sydney FC. VAR identified an unlawful handball in the penalty area and gave Sydney FC a penalty. The game ended in a 1–1 draw.

2018 FIFA World Cup

FIFA formally approved the use of VAR for the 2018 FIFA World Cup during the FIFA Council meeting on March 16, 2018.

The mouth-watering tournament became the first competition to use VAR in full.

Top European Leagues 

The VAR system was introduced in top flight European football by the German Bundesliga and the Italian Serie A at the beginning of the 2017-18 season. 

The technology was introduced in Spanish La Liga at the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

On 15 November 2018, English Premier League teams voted in principle to bring Video Assistant Referees to the Premier League from the 2019–20 season.


On 12 November 2019, chairmen of many Premier League clubs demanded that the Video Assistant Referee system either be improved or completely scrapped in light of many controversial decisions seen in matches.

Since the introduction of VAR at the start of the 2019-20 season, the use of the technology has been harshly criticised by fans, clubs, managers and even some players.

The Premier League was the last of Europe’s top leagues to introduce the use of video technology to help out officials, but the inconsistency and decision-making has continued to anger fans.

Like it or not, football fans are going to have to live with the reality that Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is here to stay.



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