VAR in Champions League: how does it work? The rules explained
The video-assistant-referee system will be in force in today’s Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter.
For the fifth time, the video-assistant-referee (VAR) system will be used in a Champions League final today. VAR was first used in a Champions League final in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Tottenham in 2019, having been introduced in Europe’s premier club competition at the start of that season’s knockout stages.
During Manchester City and Inter’s clash in Istanbul today, on-field referee Szymon Marciniak will be supported by video assistant Tomasz Kwiatkowski, while Bartosz Frankowski will be the assistant VAR.
How does VAR work?
The VAR system is there to look at what UEFA describes as “match-changing” incidents, with a focus on four scenarios: goals, incidents in the penalty area, red cards and mistaken identity. VAR is only there to alert the on-field referee to “clear and obvious” mistakes, UEFA says.
For example, if a goal has been scored, the video assistants will check whether the strike should be disallowed for offside by the scorer, or by another attacking player earlier in the build-up. Other things they need to look for include any fouls by the attacking team and, potentially, whether the ball went out of play during the move that led to the goal.
If VAR believes a major error has been made, they can ask the on-field referee to go over to the pitchside monitor to re-watch the incident. When it comes to factual, interpretation-free decisions such as offsides, though, VAR will just tell the referee what has happened, without the need for a pitchside review.
Additional 3D tool for offsides
The video officials now have semi-automated 3D technology, known as the SOAT system, to help them make offside decisions more quickly. In UEFA competitions, it is the assistant VAR who focuses on offsides calls.
VAR in action in the Champions League final
Last season’s Champions League final, between Real Madrid and Liverpool, threw up a major example of VAR being brought into play to check a match-changing incident. It came late in the first half at the Stade de France, when Karim Benzema thought he had given Los Blancos the lead but was immediately flagged offside.
Assistant VAR Massimiliano Irrati then had to check whether or not Benzema had been offside at two points in Madrid’s attacking move. While the Frenchman was quickly deemed onside in the first of these calls, the second proved particularly complex as, although Benzema was standing beyond the last defender, it was unclear whether he received the ball from Madrid’s Fede Valverde or Liverpool’s Fabinho. If it was Fabinho who turned the ball to Benzema, Irrati had to decide whether the Brazilian played the ball on purpose, as an attacker cannot be offside if they receive a ball struck deliberately by a defending player.
After a stoppage of nearly three and a half minutes, Irrati determined that Valverde had knocked the ball onto Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konaté's leg, before it hit Fabinho and bounced to Benzema. Fabinho had therefore not deliberately played the ball, so the Real Madrid striker was offside.
“Clear and obvious”?
This complex example of VAR’s use is indicative of the fact that, in practice, it is often debatable whether the requirement that video officials intervene only for “clear and obvious” errors is being followed. While Irrati ultimately upheld the original offside decision, could the on-field officials have been said to have made a blatant mistake had Benzema actually been proved onside?
Madrid later won the 2022 final 1-0, thanks to Vinícius Júnior’s second-half goal.
Goal-line technology also in use
During today’s Champions League final in Istanbul, the on-field match officials will also have goal-line technology, which has been used in the Champions League since the 2016/17. They will each be wearing watches which will let them know whether or not to award a goal in situations where it is unclear whether or not the ball has crossed the line.