World Cup ref chief Pierluigi Collina dishes on VAR impact at Russia 2018
A month has passed since the end of the World Cup in Russia, hailed by many as one of the best ever. Gab Marcotti caught up with Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA's referees committee and the man in the middle for the 2002 final between Brazil and Germany, to talk about officiating, video assistant referees (VAR) and the future.
When you look back at 2018 and the fact that relative to previous World Cups, it had perhaps the least amount of refereeing controversy, to what do you attribute it? Could it be chance? Was it VAR?
First off, I can't believe it's already over. But no, I think 64 games is a good sample size. And I'm delighted that the good feedback we received came from those who follow the game professionally. I'll get to VAR, but there are a number of things we did which, I think, helped us tremendously.
For a start, referees are athletes, just like footballers. So we had a dedicated medical staff and physiotherapists supporting them throughout the tournament, particularly in recovering quickly from minor injuries.
In the same way that too much time off can make a player rusty in terms of match rhythm, we had a problem since there was a five-week gap between the end of the club season and Russia 2018 during which referees couldn't officiate, since a World Cup referee can't take charge of a friendly involving a World Cup-bound team.
So we organized a tournament at Lokomotiv's ground in Moscow involving local teams, just so the referees could work and stay sharp. This was key too.
We also studied the teams differently. We brought a couple of licensed coaches into our staff and some professional match analysts. Their job was to scout the teams ahead of time.
How did that help you?
The idea was to give our guys a chance to understand how a game was likely to be played tactically and, therefore, how play was likely to unfold. That's a big advantage for a referee, because it means he can anticipate situations.
It's especially true on set pieces. The match analysts studied them and prepared reports for referees, so that they had a better sense of how corners and free kicks were likely to be approached. They knew what to focus on, what was most likely, what certain teams and players' tendencies were going to be. This was an important change.
Remember, at a World Cup you have referees from six different continents, all with different experiences and backgrounds who work with different styles of football. It's important to give them all the support they need.
Let's get to VAR. I get the impression that old-school referees, like the Collina of 20 years ago, might not have been in favor.
I want to be honest here: When you have a background like mine, as a referee who came of age in a certain period and enjoyed making decisions on the pitch on his own, [VAR] might not be easy to accept.
But, equally, if the ability of a referee to officiate a game is going to be judged after the fact based on video replays from multiple angles, then referees should have those replays from multiple angles too. ... I said that a long time ago, and I still believe it.
I know some people are philosophically opposed to VAR because they don't think technology has a place in football. I can respect that. But we must be open-minded and ready to implement what can be really useful and helpful.
Before VAR, you were involved in another key officiating change, that of additional assistant referees (AARs) at UEFA.
As I said before, because of my own background as a referee, I liked making decisions on my own. But then [UEFA president Michel] Platini asked me to help shape the change. A bit like VAR, it was an answer to a need: To reduce mistakes on the pitch.
And the idea was that with two extra officials who watched the game from a different angle we could reduce -- not eliminate, but reduce -- mistakes on the pitch. It's still in use in UEFA competitions.
Yet in many ways, it has been supplanted by VAR.
Obviously, over the years things change. AARs improved things, but clearly it's not comparable to what VAR can offer today. Two extra sets of eyes can't match dozens of cameras with the possibility of freeze-framing, watching over again ... there's a substantial difference. Believe me, VAR is like a parachute, and it's better to have it when [you] need it.
For the past 18 months, you were doing double-duty: You were at FIFA and, at the same time, you were, until last month, UEFA's chief refereeing officer. It seemed weird to some that, while FIFA was pushing VAR, UEFA was opposed.
Some said I was schizophrenic for that very reason ... the reality is that they were two different contexts. Introducing VAR across UEFA competitions presents a different set of challenges compared to a World Cup.
My successor at UEFA is Roberto Rosetti, who I brought in to drive the VAR implementation at the World Cup, and I think we're getting to the stage where the conditions are right for VAR in the Champions League and Europa League, too. ... Obviously, the decision will be made by UEFA, but if they choose to do it, they'll be ready.
You were on the International Football Association Board (IFAB) committee that helped lay down the VAR protocol. What were the early discussions like?
I remember at the very first meeting, I emphasized that the final say for any subjective decision that required interpretation had to be down to the referee on the pitch and not the VAR. I felt strongly about this, given my background. I didn't want the referee to be a mere executor, controlled by a joystick by someone outside the field of play.
Back to the World Cup. One of the frustrations with VAR is that sometimes it is not clear why it intervenes or does not intervene and, when it does, what is actually going on.
First of all, I want to emphasize that VAR is always watching. You only need to look at the number of "silent checks" [when VAR evaluates an incident and does not deem it worthy of an on-field review].
Beyond that, communication is important, and I think we took an important step in Russia with on-screen announcements, both in the stadium and for [TV] viewers. It's only right that people understand what is going on.
Often, however, they don't. I think back to the World Cup final and the penalty that was awarded to France after Ivan Perisic handled the ball. The penalty was awarded by the referee, Nestor Pitana, only after VAR called for an on-field review. I understand that it's down to interpretation, but it certainly did not look like a clear error.
I think those who watched it closely knew the referee could not have seen it since there were bodies in the way. And because he did not see it, VAR gave him the opportunity to review it. Then his interpretation was to give a penalty.
What other benefits do you think VAR brought at the World Cup? We saw fewer protests from players.
That's one, and I think it offsets those who say reviews delay the game. Players have been very accepting of VAR. But one other important aspect is deterrence. I don't think it's a coincidence that we had more set piece goals and fewer off-the-ball incidents. Knowing you are watched at all times means your attitude is going to be different.
When you were still an official, FIFA's referee committee was made up mostly by football administrators and there were only a few former referees involved. Now you're virtually all ex-referees.
That was one of things I asked when I took the FIFA job. The referees' committee should be made up only of specialists; it's a technical role that shouldn't belong to those in the politics of football. Today the head of referees from each confederation sits on the committee and that's a big step forward.
You talk about the importance of quality; if quality is most important, will we ever see, say, a Spanish referee taking charge of Spain vs. Germany? Or will we always be fixated on nationality and neutrality?
I think that's a utopia. No matter how professional or talented a referee is, he'd have difficulty. Imagine an official making a mistake that hurts his own country.
But we're already taking steps forward. I'll give you an example. Japan qualified ahead of Senegal for the knockout phase and it was very close. For Japan's next match, against Belgium, we appointed a Senegalese referee, Malang Diedhiou, because we thought he was best for the job.
In the past, that might not have happened, people might have talked about him feeling pressure to avenge his country. Which, of course, when you think about it, is absurd.
Similarly, as far as "confederation neutrality" is concerned, we had South American referees appointed to officiate South American teams [against teams from other confederations, which previously had only been the case with European referees].
Players make mistakes and referees make mistakes. But I guess there are some big differences. One is that people don't pay to watch referees, they pay to watch players. The other is that it's easier for a player to redeem himself for a mistake.
Well, some of us watch referees more than players, but, yes, it's a key difference. A player can miss a sitter and then score a hat trick. A referee who incorrectly awards a penalty and then is flawless the rest of the game will still be remembered and criticized for the mistake ... That's why we're trying, every which way, to help limit errors.