While the Netherlands squad prepare for their upcoming matches against Germany and Belgium just a few pitches away at the KNVB Campus in Zeist, 24 UEFA referees from various countries are inside the ARAG KNVB Replay Center, working hard on the VAR. The reason: Video Assistant Referees will be introduced in next season's UEFA Champions League.
"The facilities here are great and the pitch is within walking distance."
The gathering at KNVB headquarters is the first in a series of training sessions involving this group of referees. In two weeks, they will be travelling to Madrid for a second week of testing. During the winter, there will be another trip, to Lisbon. By then, a new group of UEFA referees will have started in Zeist. It is no coincidence that the KNVB is hosting the first VAR training session. "It all started here in the Netherlands," says Jaap Uilenberg, vice-chairman of UEFA’s Referees Committee. "The facilities here are great and the pitch is within walking distance."
That pitch is just a few metres away and there is a match being played on it. "Simulated, of course," says Mike van der Roest, the VAR project manager at the Royal Netherlands Football Association. He is assisting the 24 referees, giving advice and practical support during their first day of training. "There will be continuous action, because we don’t want to see nothing happening for several minutes." The referees are divided into two groups for live testing: one on the pitch, the other in the VAR Center, where they can practice on seven screens." One person in the latter group active maintains online contact with the on-pitch referee," Van der Roest explains. "The other six practice offline with other footage."
“Giorgi, what is your decision?” referee Davide Massa asks his colleague on the pitch Giorgi Kabakov after he has taken up VAR position in front of the screens in the Replay Center. “Please go to the referee review area and watch the situation yourself,” he advises the Bulgarian official. “No penalty, withdraw the red card!” is the message barely a minute later after another incident on the other side of the pitch. One after the other, the incidents requiring VAR intervention follow in rapid succession. Van der Roest is pleased. "Only by practicing a lot will you learn how to work with the system."
UEFA referee Matej Jug is the second official to act as Assistant Video Assistant Referee (AVAR). Not much later, he will be the VAR and then the on-pitch referee. At first, it took some getting used to, he admits. "But the first impressions are very positive. This will help us take the right decision in crucial situations. "The Slovenian referee is proud to be part of the new generation of referees: "The VAR is the future. I am very happy to be here."
"The first impressions are very positive. This will help us take the right decision in crucial situations."
His Belarusian colleague Aleksei Kulbakov feels much the same way. "As of next year, the VAR will be introduced in the Champions League, and in the meantime we will have to make as much progress as possible.” The video assistant referee is not only there to help officials, Kulbakov emphasizes. "It will benefit the game as a whole; referees, players and spectators. For me personally it is a huge opportunity and a great honour to be part of this."
Not only the referees, but also the KNVB wholeheartedly welcomes the introduction of the VAR in the UEFA competitions, says KNVB Secretary-General Gijs de Jong.
“It is not because we have been at the forefront of this development, but because it will make these important competitions fairer and more credible. The VAR will support referees in difficult situations and these will only increase as the game becomes faster and more intense. It goes without saying that the KNVB is very proud that UEFA has chosen our state-of-the-art Replay Center to prepare a new generation of referees for the coming season.”
UEFA’s Chief Refereeing Officer Roberto Rosetti is thoroughly enthusiastic about the facilities in Zeist. Looking at the Replay Center where the referees are busy familiarising themselves with the possibilities of the video referee, he says, "This is perfect for our training. The technology at the VAR Center is really top-notch. We would like to thank the KNVB for the opportunity to come here.”
"Our target is to preventing clear errors."
Rosetti is clear about the importance of introducing the VAR and organizing the training for it. "This is an important project, not only for referees, but for European football in general. Our target is to preventing clear errors and this project and this training can help referees take the right decisions. Consistency and uniformity are crucial. We need to speak one language, one technical language. Nowadays, everybody can review incidents on their television set or mobile phone. The only person who cannot do this is the referee. And the referee has to take the decision. We have to help the referee take the correct decision and this is the way.”