I couldn’t take my eyes off the 2016-2017 NBA final. In four out of five games, both teams scored more than 100 points each. Could there be a more fast-paced and exciting sport? And it wasn’t just because it was a match between LeBron James and Stephen Curry. It was the aggression and sheer speed of the plays. Basketball has been constantly adapting to be more exciting—through changes to the court size, playing time, foul regulations, and more. And these changes have succeeded.
Football, in contrast, is adamantly resistant to change. Modifications to a single regulation can take years. There are several reasons for this. For one, the NBA doesn’t have to take other countries into account when it changes its regulations. Football regulations, on the other hand, are the same across all football leagues, and are under the direction of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). And the numbers of players and the size of the pitches mean there are many variables, making it difficult for changes to achieve their intended effects. Also, there aren’t many regulations to revise since they’re not very complex to begin with. Football is a simple sport.
From Hawk-Eye to VARs to ABBA
FIFA is looking for ways to change football. Japan is the usual testing ground for new technologies and the changes started with goal-line technology. Two goal-line systems were tested at the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Hawk-Eye, which uses high-speed video cameras to mark the ball’s location, was used in Toyota. Everyone was familiar with Hawk-Eye as it was already in use in tennis. Another program, involving a sensor mounted inside the ball, was test in Yokohama. In the end, Hawk-eye won out.
Hawk-Eye became widely known during the 2013-2014 English Premier League. When a ball momentarily crossed a goal-line and bounced away, Hawk-Eye would accurately detect it and confirm the goal. The conservative football world approached Hawk-Eye with distrust, but once it was introduced it made the calls more accurate and the games even more fun. Instead of 50 years of never-ending discussions about whether the ball had crossed the line or not, people could now see everything right away on the giant display. It was thrilling.
Football had previously been reluctant to apply new technologies. But thanks to Hawk-Eye, people realized that new technologies could make games more fair and fun. FIFA, led by President Gianni Infantino, actively wants to change football. And with the next technology, the testing ground was once again Asia.
The video assistant referee (VAR) system brings an even bigger change than Hawk-Eye. During a game, these referees watch monitors in a van outside the stadium. The monitors screen images delivered by high-performance cameras scattered throughout the stadium. The assistant referees check the blind spots for the three referees on the field, and are sometimes able to correct their mistakes. Offsides, for instance, are especially hard to call. When a ball bounces between an attacker and a defender in a tenth of a second, it is impossible for referees to not make mistakes. But now, the video referees can check the play on the monitors and relay the information to the head referee.
The first live trial of the VAR system began in the Club World Cup held in Japan last December. It was also tested in the U-20 World Cup held in Korea this May. I covered both competitions on site. And I noticed a swift reduction in opposition to the system.
The VAR system had a huge impact on the Club World Cup. In the semi-finals, Kashima Antlers scored a penalty and defeated Atletico Nacional. In the middle of the game, the referee stopped play and headed to the side of the field. After checking the monitors, he gave a penalty. A VAR had alerted him that a Nacional defender had stepped on a Kashima player’s foot. Nacional’s players were of course new to the system and unaware of what was going on. They didn’t even get a chance to protest the decision.
Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid complained about the VAR system at the 2016 Club World Cup semi-final with Club America. Japan.
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo scored a goal against Club America, but he wasn’t able to perform his goal celebration until after a video replay confirmed he was onside. After the game, Ronaldo and Luka Modric spoke negatively about the new technology.
The video replay was used more aggressively in the U-20 World Cup. When Korean players were celebrating a goal against Guinea, the head referee checked the monitors and announced that there was no goal. Players quickly adapted to the new rules of the game. When no penalty was announced after the ball seemed to hit an Italian player’s hand, the French players drew a rectangle in the air, asking for a video replay. A new form of player protest had appeared.
All of the coaches received questions on the VAR system. It was hard to find people who expressed negative thoughts on the matter. After South Korea’s goal was declared a no-goal, Shin Tae-yong, the head coach of the Korean national football team, said, “We need to accept [the result]. I told the players to take the VAR system into consideration during the game.” None of the coaches were openly hostile to the new rule.
FIFA also changed the format of the penalty shootouts. Instead of the original format, where the players from the two teams alternated shooting (A, B, A, B, and so on), FIFA introduced a new format, dubbed the “ABBA sequence”, so that teams taking the first and second kicks change between attempts. This would reduce to a minimum the potential disadvantage of taking the second penalty. This was a smaller change than the introduction of the VAR system, but it made the games fairer as well as more exciting. And as three games were decided in shootouts, there were many opportunities to see the new rules in action.
Plizzari of Italy saving a shootout penalty against Uruguay at the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
The new penalty shootout format stood out the most in the third place match. Italian goalkeeper Alessandro Pizzari made back to back saves against Uruguay’s second and third players. With the consecutive saves, Italy gained the upper hand and went on to win. It was a thrilling moment made possible by the new rule. After the game, both the Italian and the Uruguayan coaches expressed positive opinions about the new rule.
Up next: 60 minute matches
The VAR system is being tested again right now at the 2017 Confederations Cup. If no flaws are found, the new rules will be applied to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The K League will also implement video referees in line with global trends. One billion won will be a huge burden for the league, which is short on revenues, but the K League decided that it was more important to reduce the controversies surrounding bad calls.
FIFA is looking to implement bigger changes. Marco van Basten, the legendary Dutch attacker, has been participating in reforming association football as FIFA’s Chief Technical Development Officer. The VAR system and the new penalty shootout rule are just the beginning. The most likely next change is a reduction in the length of matches from 90 minutes to 60. Instead, the clock will stop whenever the ball goes out of play. Currently, the effective playing time ranges from 50 to 60 minutes. So reducing the playing time will not affect the actual playing time much. And it could prevent players players from wasting time through thrown-ins and corner kicks. With the same effective playing time, the new game length could make matches faster-paced and more dramatic.
Football is changing. Korea and Japan were the testing grounds, and their successes are now set to change football across the world. By the 2022 World Cup, football as we know it might be a thing of the past.