Going inside the VAR booth at the FIFA Women’s World Cup

VAR

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system was used at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Canada is set to compete at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, and with a little bit of luck, the Reds could make history on the pitch by hoisting the trophy at the end of the competition.

But there’ll also be a Canadian in France who might make an important impact off the pitch.

Drew Fischer, a 38-year-old referee from Calgary, is a member of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) crew, which will be used for the first time in a Women’s World Cup.

Fischer officiated his first pro game in 2007, and has been an MLS referee since 2011. He’s also worked in the VAR booth in MLS over the last few years.

Sportsnet recently chatted with Fischer about VAR, his gig at the World Cup, and much more.

SPORTSNET: How did you land this VAR assignment at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France?

FISCHER: In February, there were two referee/VAR seminars hosted by FIFA in Qatar, and I was invited to attend with four other MLS refs. We spent about a week there training and learning. A month after that, I was invited to a similar seminar, also in Qatar, with the refs who were slated to go to the World Cup. At that point, FIFA actually hadn’t decided whether VAR would be used at the World Cup, but [the seminar] was an opportunity to give people some additional training in the event it would be used. Shortly thereafter, FIFA announced VAR would be used at the World Cup, and I got the nod after that, but I think it was just building on the work we had done with VAR in [MLS] and being in the right place at the right time.

SPORTSNET: So, you had previously undergone training with VAR prior to those seminars, correct?

FISCHER: Right. We’ve done a ton of training for MLS with it. Those two VAR seminars were the first two that I attended that were specific to FIFA competitions. Most of it overlapped with MLS – we’re using the same protocol, the same approach. There’s just some differences in the specific words that we use to communicate, which is due to the fact that it’s the World Cup and English isn’t necessarily everybody’s first language. Everybody speaks English, but you try to simplify the communication so nothing gets lost in translation.

We started training on an earlier version of VAR for MLS, three or four years ago, and then when MLS adopted it, we did more training leading up to that. We’ve been using it in live games for the last two years, so that makes a big difference.

SPORTSNET: Can you give me a sense of what your VAR training was like?

FISCHER: For the most part, the referees are being instructed to continue to ref the game like they’ve always done. The only difference that comes in is when you need to delay a restart because the VAR needs to complete its check or you need to communicate with them a bit differently, so from the ref’s side there’s a training component there.

On the VAR side, it’s just a matter of getting familiar with working with the replay operators in our booth. We have monitors but there’s an operator from Hawk-Eye who’s cueing up and feeding us the replays we’re asking for.

The training that we do is typically two-fold. One, we do some simulation work where we’ll have a setup in classroom and we’re looking at past games. Two, they have a mobile VAR setup which they can take to training fields and so we’ll get out there and there’ll be players on the field, and they’ve been instructed to create scenarios for us. We’ll have seven or eight minutes per referee and VAR, and in that time, they might manufacture half a dozen scenarios for us to go through for the refs to make decisions and VAR will check them. If we have to, we go through the process of a review and what that would look like in a real game and making a decision.

SPORTSNET: What’s the experience like for you going from being the referee on the pitch to working in the VAR booth? How do you make that transformation?

FISCHER: There’s a few key differences. When you’re in the booth, you’re not trying to re-referee the game. You’re not trying to necessarily call things the way you would call them. You’re looking for clear errors that need to be rectified based on the protocol, so we’re looking very much at the criteria that is set out for VAR. We have the chance to communicate with the ref to know what they’re seeing and find out if that matches what we’re seeing, so we’re really only trying to correct clear errors that do a disservice to the game if they’re allowed to stand.

SPORTSNET: When it is a clear error that needs to be corrected, how do you communicate with the referee? What’s that conversation like?

FISCHER: The initial stages of that communication tend to be very simple. We stick to some key words because you have a referee in the middle of the field and you may have 11 players screaming at him because they think he got it wrong. So, that first bit of information has to be clear and straight forward. Typically, if we’re checking something and we need to get back to the referee, we’re going to start with one of two things, either “check complete,” which means he can continue and the decision is right or there’s no clear errors, or very simply “I really recommend a review.”

At that point, the slight difference between MLS and international [competitions] is on things that are purely factual. Was the player in an offside position, did the foul occur inside the box – those things at the international level, we typically won’t have the referee go to the monitor pitch side to review it. The VAR will just give the ref the information, which is a little different from MLS for a variety of reasons. But for the most part, we’ll say, “I recommend a review,” and the referee will head over to the monitor. Once they start to head to the monitor, that’s our opportunity to get into the meat of it a little bit, and we might say to them in their head set, “When you get to the screen, this is what you’re going to see.”

So, we can set the stage a little bit for them and that way when they get there we’ve minimized the time that they have to be there, because we want this to be as efficient as possible. We can talk them through the scenario a little bit if needed. Nine times out of 10, though, the referee has a pretty good idea of what they’re going to see when they get there, and it usually doesn’t take them more than a couple looks to make a decision. Some can be very easy, and you hope that all are like that, but for the most part we’re telling them what we’re seeing and give them the information that they can use to make the correct decision.

SPORTSNET: Do you think VAR can be improved in any way? Are there any shortcomings that you’d like to see addressed or tweaked?

FISCHER: I don’t know that it’s about shortcomings, necessarily. We’re still in the early days of this – three years in the whole history of football, it’s nothing. A lot of the ways that we’re communicating are evolving as we go, there’s little tweaks that we pick up along the way. I don’t think we’re in a spot where wholesale changes are necessary. The overall setup of the system is pretty functional. It’s just a matter of time to get everybody communicating on the same page in a way that is natural for everybody.

SPORTSNET: What about changes to the criteria of what plays can be reviewed? Would you like to see more or less things reviewed?

FISCHER: Right now, if we step back to the original idea that the point of introducing VAR was to prevent and address scandalous decisions – the goal that is over the line or a clear hand ball infraction but the ref missed it – all of those things that really affect the outcome of the game, I think we’re capturing now. I don’t know how much further you’d want to review. Any more that you add to this, you’re adding more delays and more complexities, and maybe for minimal benefit.

SPORTSNET: Does VAR undermine the authority of the referee?

FISCHER: We’ve found through the last few years of using VAR that it’s just another tool for the referee. It’s important that we still have the referee on the day making decisions. This isn’t like a few other sports where the guys in the video booth are making the decision and transmitting the decision to the ref on the field. In most cases that aren’t purely factual, the ref is going to the pitch-side monitor to review it himself on a play that could alter the course of the game. I think that part can only help the refs. When refs go to the monitor and come back out, they make better decisions and the players generally accept them because they feel they really can’t dispute it.

VAR adds a layer of pressure because the expectation on big decisions is that they will now be 100 per cent correct all the time, and that’s never going to be the case. We try to get as close as we can to 100 per cent, but at the end of the day everybody involved is human so there’s always going to potential for errors.

SPORTSNET: Are you looking forward to working your first World Cup?

FISCHER: Oh, yeah. The World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport, and it’s what every ref shoots for. It’s a great environment. Big tournaments like this are much different when you’re inside them. You’re very much aware of the scale of it, but you kind of live in your own bubble, so it doesn’t feel the same way it looks. At the end of the day, this is an incredible opportunity to work with some really great referees on a big stage.

SPORTSNET: How did you become as a referee? Is it true you started at age 13?

FISCHER: [Laughs] Yeah. It started out as an opportunity to make a little bit of money as a teenager – it beats some of the alternatives. I started out doing local, U-10 games in Calgary. As I got older I worked my way up the ladder to the point I was noticed by people on some bigger stages, and the opportunities increased.

SPORTSNET: Why be a referee? I mean, it seems like such a thankless job, what with the abuse you guys take from players, managers and fans. What drives you to be a referee? There has to be easier way to make a living, no?

FISCHER: [Laughs] It sounds trite, but every single referee does this because we love it; if we didn’t love it, we’d never put up with everything negative that comes with it. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why we love it. The simplest answer is I get to go out onto the field with some of the best players in the world, and be involved in the game that I love, and be around a group of people that are fabulous. My experience has been that referees are some of the best people you could ever hope to meet. Working with people who are great to be around and with whom I have lasting friendships, that doesn’t hurt. But at the end of the day, it’s the game is amazing and being a part of it amazing.

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