New York Red Bulls
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Soccer (Football)

What is VAR and how is it used in soccer?

Despite having these four sets of eyes on the pitch, soccer officials can still miss things during fast-paced play.
By Michael Burgess II
6 min readPublished on
In most levels of soccer, there are three officials on the field at once. There is a head referee, whose main job is handling discipline and deciding advantages. Then there are two assistant referees, or linesmen/lineswomen, who make decisions regarding positioning.
At higher levels of soccer, like in Bundesliga, where RB Leipzig play, there is a fourth official. Their duties include managing substitutions, regulating stoppage time, and maintaining contact between the match officials and outside parties.
Jonatan Soriano (RBS) and Matt Miazga (RB Leipzig) in 2015

Jonatan Soriano (RBS) and Matt Miazga (RB Leipzig) in 2015

© GEPA pictures / Red Bull Content Pool

Despite having these four sets of eyes on the pitch, soccer officials can still miss things during fast-paced play. To remedy that, the world of soccer has slowly begun to accept VAR into its hierarchy of officiating. VAR, which stands for Video Assistant Referee, is a fifth referee positioned off the field, who can watch any play on multiple screens from multiple angles, including in slow-motion. The VAR referee can then advise the officials on the field.
This controversial technology has come into play in many instances. Below we get into the history of VAR and its evolution.

How Did VAR Start?

With the advancement of technology, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) wanted to implement a system that could serve as a backup for referees in case they made any mistakes. In other words, if referees were making the correct call about 95% of the time, there needed to be a system to account for and correct the 5% of incorrect calls that fans could see immediately with instant replay.
As part of its Refereeing 2.0 initiative, the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) implemented VAR for mock trial testing during its 2012-13 Eredivisie campaign. Then, in 2014, the KNVB began to petition IFAB for the system to be used in other leagues and competitions, with IFAB agreeing in 2016 to a full implementation of VAR.
Match between RB Leipzig and FC Sankt Pauli in Leipzig in November 2014

Match between RB Leipzig and FC Sankt Pauli in Leipzig in November 2014

© GEPA pictures / Red Bull Content Pool

The first live trial run for VAR came in a July 2016 friendly between PSV and FC Eindhoven.
The second live trial run for VAR came a month later in an August 2016 match between USL sides New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B. VAR was used twice in the match.

How Does VAR Work?

VAR functions a lot like instant replay in other sports like American football or basketball. Its purpose is to ensure that the referees make the correct calls on the pitch.
VAR is operated by an AVAR (assistant video assistant referee). The AVAR watches over VAR, keeps a record of incidents that need to be reviewed, and communicates the outcomes of VAR reviews to commentators and related staff.
VAR monitors every decision made by a referee that can be reviewed. If the AVAR believes something was missed or an incorrect call was made, he or she will communicate that to the head referee through their earpiece.
After an error has been identified and play has been stopped, there are three possible ways the head referee can handle it.
There are some things that don’t require a review, such as an offside or handball, so the referee can simply just change or reverse the ruling. Other decisions, like discipline or the severity of a certain foul, are more subjective and may require the head referee to take a second look at things through an on-field review. The head referee could also just ignore the VAR ruling if they feel like the call would be incorrect or too severe.

The Do’s and Don'ts of VAR

There are four broad categories where VAR is used to review a play. While it is an integral part of the game, it is important to remember that VAR is only an assistant referee. That means any decision made off of the field via VAR can be trumped by the head referee at any given time.

What VAR Does Review

New York Red Bulls

New York Red Bulls

© Garth Milan

VAR is allowed to review four types of decisions:
  • Goal decisions
VAR can review whether or not a goal is allowed to stand. It reviews the entire build up of play and takes note of anything that would give the attacking team an unfair advantage or rule the play dead. If anything of that nature happened, then the goal would be disallowed; if not, then it stands.
  • Penalty decisions
If a foul happens in or around the box, VAR is allowed to review the play to verify whether a penalty should be given. This isn’t just whether or not a foul was committed, but also where the potential foul was committed, or whether the ball went out of play before the foul was committed.
  • Direct red card decisions
Any time a player receives a direct red card, the play is immediately subject to review. The decision can be allowed to stand, or the foul can be downgraded to a yellow card or common foul.
  • Mistaken identity decisions
Sometimes a referee may punish or send off the wrong player because there is too much chaos on the field. A great example is if there is a massive scrum or a fight among the players. VAR reviews those decisions to ensure that the correct players receive the correct level of discipline for their actions and/or involvements in certain plays.

What VAR Does Not Review

Anything that falls outside of the above four listed instances is not reviewable by VAR. These decisions include but are not restricted to first and second-yellow card decisions (offenses where a player would receive their first or second yellow card of the match), corner kicks (whether or not the ball went past the touchline), and handballs (whether or not the ball touches a player’s arm or hand in an illegal manner). Those judgments fall to the discretion of the on-field referees.


VAR has made soccer a much cleaner game than it was before its implementation. According to FIFA, VAR made the correct call 99.3% of the time during the 2018 World Cup, while the referees themselves made the correct call 95% of the time. However, the system is not perfect and still gets some calls wrong.
There are also some heavy criticisms of the system, especially in terms of clarity over rules and consistency with rulings. However, remember that VAR is just an assistant referee, and all decisions are eventually determined by the head referee of the match. VAR has come a long way and is not perfect, but compared to the long and storied history of soccer, VAR is still in its infancy and has a long way to go.