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VAR and Stoppage Time; the Officiating of the World Cup

The Women's World Cup comes to a conclusion this weekend, with England and Spain both playing in their very first final. Stunning goals and incredible saves have been the highlights of the tournament, but the use of VAR and large amounts of stoppage time haven't gone unnoticed.

Big games have been decided by VAR, some of them deep into stoppage time. This has unsettled some supporters and for good reason, but there have been good examples of VAR this Summer which have ensured the right decision was made.

Much like the first use of VAR in the 2018 World Cup, the 2023 World Cup has, at times, demonstrated how VAR should work.

Essentially, everything is checked. Any time there's a coming together of players in the penalty area, a goal where the ball was vaguely close to the attacker or a challenge that looked a bit too tasty, VAR will have a look.

That's not to say the referee will go and look at the monitor every time; they only go if the official in the video room recommends an on-field review. This policy of constant checking reduces the chance of error, as nothing will be missed. It also doesn't take up any additional time, as teams are often celebrating their goals or badgering the referee anyway.

VAR has not been without issues though. A couple of critical issues have been exposed at this World Cup, one of which has been the overwhelming reliance referees now have on VAR.

It's important to note that this is an issue with the on-field referees, not the technology itself.

The intention of the technology was always to help and support the referee, not do their job for them. On several occasions this Summer, the referees have decided against making a decision at all, simply in favour of waiting for VAR assistance.

The clearest example of this came from China's decisive third group match against Haiti. Zhang Rui made an awful challenge on a Haiti player, high up and from behind with her studs flying into the challenge, a no doubt red card.

Referee Marta Huerta de Aza, after some consideration, gave only a yellow card. Upon review, the card was upgraded to a red one, but from the angle the referee originally had of the incident, it was a very obvious red card.

It's arguable that this is the point of VAR, but constant delays to matches which are largely preventable are frustrating. Even a referee with far less experience than de Aza should've given a red card straight away for such a dangerous challenge.

These decisions have been made even more frustrating by the huge amounts of stoppage time that have been added throughout the World Cup.

It's one thing for the players to waste time, but when the officials are taking too long over their decisions it's unfair for players to then have to risk their fitness because of it.

The principle of extended stoppage time is, however, a good one. The amount of time wasting in football has become ludicrous in the past few years, especially in the Premier League.

FIFA's methods for tackling this weren't popular at the 2022 World Cup, but have proven effective in the 2023 edition.

In the group stages, for example, Italy wasted a lot of time in their game against South Africa, only to concede a stoppage-time winner. This is proof that the added time does make up for time wasting.

By far the greatest benefit of having more added time though is that it acts as a deterrent to time wasting in the first place. As the tournament progresses, fewer teams are wasting time.

Even Spain, with a one-goal lead over Sweden, on the verge of reaching their first-ever World Cup final, were happy to get on with the game to prevent more time from being added to the end of the semi-final.

We've also seen similar developments in the Premier League; Arsenal and Crystal Palace were both holding narrow advantages at the end of their opening games, but ate up the time by keeping the ball rather than taking 30 seconds to take a throw-in.

Overall, the quality of refereeing has improved throughout the World Cup. The elite referees remaining for the semi-finals and final have been fantastic.

There are certainly improvements to be made, with the huge amount of added time prioritising game management over player fitness, but the ideas are encouraging.

The only pressing issue with the officiating at the 2023 World Cup is the dependency on VAR. However, this hasn't resulted in incorrect decisions, just a delay to the right outcome.

In so many ways, this Women's World Cup has been the best ever and the standard of officiating is no exception. It's incredibly encouraging and refreshing to see several female referees officiating to an impressive standard on the very biggest stage.

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