Referee Nick Waldron recently made history by becoming the first New Zealander to act as a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at a major international tournament. The Auckland-based match official performed that role at the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup and was joined in the Korea Republic by a pair of fellow Kiwis, referee Matt Conger and assistant referee Simon Lount. We caught up with Waldron on his return to find out more about the unique experience.
How did it feel to be part of history by becoming a VAR in the system’s first ever appearance at a major tournament?
It was great to be involved in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic as a Video Assistant Referee (VAR). The preparation FIFA gave us was excellent and we arrived well in advance of the tournament to get up to speed on the process and protocols. It’s always an honour to attend a FIFA event and represent New Zealand. Initially, acting as a VAR felt a little uneasy as the process was new and everyone was inexperienced as a VAR. However, with the training in place and a defined protocol to act only on clear errors affecting goals, red cards (direct), penalties and cases of mistaken identity it became business as usual.
Which matches were you involved in and which of these made most use of the VAR system?
I was appointed to five matches as a VAR: South Africa v Japan (with Matthew Conger’s trio), Costa Rica v Portugal, Germany v Vanuatu, Senegal v Ecuador and France v Italy (Round of 16). In most of the matches I performed a number of checks and confirmations of decisions. In the Germany-Vanuatu match, we advised the referee to award a penalty as I felt there had been a clear error. In the France-Italy match, we disallowed a goal for a foul on the goalkeeper in the build-up as I thought the keeper had clear possession of the ball on the goal-line before the attacker kicked and fouled him. Games with lots of goals and a high foul count create more work as a VAR.
Operating as a VAR would be a very different experience to acting as a main referee on the field. What are the key differences and challenges?
Initially, acting as a VAR felt a little uneasy as the process was new and very different to being on the pitch. Some decisions are factual such as position in judging offside or inside/outside for penalties close to the edge of the box. Others require judgment such as what is a red card for serious foul play. Judging factual decisions is clearer than subjective ones. However, the biggest challenge was interpreting what is a clear error. A clear error to me is one where nine out of 10 referees would agree on the interpretation.
Given that the introduction of the VAR system is a new initiative, how did you prepare for the role and make sure you knew what to expect?
The preparation FIFA gave us was excellent and we arrived well in advance (10 days) in Korea for the tournament to get up to speed on the process and protocols. We arrived well before the referee trios. Additionally, we also received training at a FIFA seminar earlier in April in Italy and I had previously had some exposure to VAR in Japan last year at the FIFA Club World Cup. We also trained with players simulating a match and tested the Hawk-Eye system to view replies and ensure the communication process worked between the VAR and the referee.
Now that you have added a new string to your bow, are you keen to pursue a further career as a VAR or will you continue to focus on refereeing?
The VARs in Korea were referees in the Russia World Cup programme so everyone will continue to pursue and train to referee matches. However, with the introduction of VARs it certainly creates another option and avenue to attend FIFA events.
Do you feel the introduction of the VAR system is a positive move for the game and how will it assist referees in doing their job more effectively?
I think the introduction of VARs has been positive for the game. The most important thing in any match is to ensure the correct team wins and it is safe. Obviously, a referee never wants to affect the outcome. And with the introduction of VARs this can reduce clear referee mistakes and errors. The referees’ job doesn’t change but the VAR is there for support and as a safety net for the game and the referee.