We go behind the scenes inside a small room that plays a huge part in today’s game: the football-officiating equivalent of mission control.
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The video assistant referee (VAR) has been a UEFA Champions League fixture since 2019, but this season, the process has been tweaked to operate remotely from UEFA HQ in Nyon, Switzerland, rather than at match venues across Europe.
The new process was introduced for EURO 2020, driven by the pandemic-fuelled need to reduce numbers at each venue, with 22 video match officials sharing tournament duties. However, it proved so successful that it has been retained and is now used for all UEFA knockout stage club competitions where possible (some venues don’t have the necessary fibre optics to make it work).
Here, we take a look inside the VAR Remote Centre and experience a night at the controls with Marco Fritz, a German official who has been an international referee since 2012.
The VAR Remote Centre setup
Inside the room, located at UEFA HQ on the shores of Lake Geneva, there are six VAR stations, divided by partition screens, with two more stations in a separate space in the building.
The main VAR is the leader of the team and the main point of contact with the on-field referee, with the task of focusing on incidents. The VAR is accompanied by an assistant video assistant referee (AVAR), concentrating on following the match, with the team accompanied by three operators, as well as a VAR support assistant who acts in a coordination capacity.
The replay operator, trained in Hawk-Eye, has access to all the cameras in any given stadium, which are connected via a dedicated fibre link that ensures no more than a 50-millisecond delay to the pictures.
On a busy match night, all manner of European languages fill the air, and as the games get underway, it’s fascinating to observe proceedings as officials communicate with their in-stadium colleagues.
The VAR: a match with Marco Fritz
Marco Fritz is the video assistant referee (VAR) for tonight’s Champions League matchday five game between Villarreal and Manchester United, joined in the room by an AVAR and two replay operators.
The lights have gone down; ten minutes until show time. Fritz is on stage before curtain-up, pacing a little. Now he sits behind a desk and is shifting slightly in his chair; his fingers are tapping out a gentle rhythm on the desktop. It’s not nerves we’re witnessing, though. This is adrenalin. He’s ready to perform.
Five minutes to go and headphones are on. One minute to go and the 44-year-old presses the large red button in front of him that allows him to talk to on-field referee Felix Brych, for one last audio check. And it’s a good thing he does – because Brych can’t hear him.
Fritz calls over Alessandro Arduino, VAR project coordinator. Arduino has already been busy tonight: snow in Ukraine has necessitated red lines on the pitch and an orange ball for tonight’s game between Dynamo Kyiv and Bayern München; that, in turn, has meant recalibrating the VAR tech to recognise these two new colours. Now he’s back on the phone to resolve the lack of sound at the Estadio de la Cerámica; Brych is going to need a new headset. There’s no panic in the room, but there is palpable tension. The clock is ticking…
The TV pictures show that Brych has reappeared. Are we back in business? Fritz is back on the red button, a bright red border appearing around his screen to signify that he’s opened communication. "Eins, zwei, drei…" A pause. Furrowed brows. Then: "Perfekt!" Good to go.
"It’s not what you need but we know it can happen," Fritz says afterwards of the rare tech teaser. "You have to stay calm because the match is about to start. We have to be ready."
With the match kicked off, he’s watching a live feed from the stadium’s main camera and can hear everything the referee and his assistants are saying in his headphones.
Fritz also thinks it’s important for VARs to support their colleagues on the pitch. "If I can give confidence to the referee, it feels good for them," he says. "Not 500 times during the match and not for every decision, but every 20 minutes, why not?" It benefits him too. "Because I’m not in the stadium – I’m here – but I want to feel part of the team."
If anything happens and Fritz wants to take another look, he’s got another screen lower down that has a three-second delay and provides four different camera angles. He’ll let the AVAR know that he’s checking something out (as the AVAR needs to watch for any further incidents, should the game still be in full flow) and then either returns to watching the game in real time or investigates further.
If the latter, he’ll asks the replay operator to give him what he needs: different angle, pause, slow motion, zoom in, normal speed, multiple repeats – take your pick. He also lets the on-field official know what’s going on: "Right decision, well done, carry on"; "Delay, we’re still checking something." If it’s deemed that intervention is necessary, the VAR will either communicate that to the referee to implement the necessary decision or ask him to head for the pitch-side monitor, depending on the gravity of the situation. Now the ref can tell the replay operator what he wants to see and make the final decision himself.
At half-time in the game, Fritz exits. "I go outside, where there’s no one, and just walk," he says. "I don’t want to speak to anyone, not even my AVAR. I just want three minutes to clear my head, then start again." Which he duly does, with no major incidents to deal with in the second half. Does that mean he’ll sleep well tonight? "No! I always have a lot of things on my mind. It’s a good thing that today we had the early match, because I’ve got time to relax now."
UEFA Referees’ Committee chairman, and former international referee, Roberto Rosetti:
"In my time, every match was life or death. My last-minute speech with my colleagues before a game would be, ‘We must see everything.’ There was no possibility to watch again. Everyone else could, but not us. This was the paradox.
"[Now], it’s better because we can use a pool of VARs, the best in Europe. Quality is the priority. We had an excellent EURO but now the target is to try and maintain the same level.
"Perfect football doesn’t exist, it’s impossible. In this job, there is always room for improvement. We’re never satisfied."