Early in the second half of Monday’s World Cup match between Iran and Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo went down inside the box. After the referee waved off Ronaldo’s call for a penalty, the VAR – or video assistant referee – recommended a review, and a penalty was awarded.

VAR screen being used at the 2018 World Cup
Referee Joel Aguilar takes a look at VAR footage before awarding Sweden a penalty in their 1-0 victory over South Korea at the 2018 World Cup. (Image: Adam Pretty/Getty)

Ronaldo would fail to convert thanks to a great effort by Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. But the spot kick itself was historic, as it marked the 19th penalty kick of the World Cup – a new record, even before the tournament has reached the knockout stage.

Penalty Record Shattered

There would be another penalty awarded later in the Iran-Portugal match, bringing the total number for the World Cup to 20. That shatters the record of 18 set in 1990, and later matched in 1998 and 2002. In the 2014 tournament, held in Brazil, only 13 penalty kicks were taken.

The sudden uptick has led to questions about why so many penalties are being called. And with one new element in place at this World Cup, there’s a clear culprit in the minds of many: VAR.

A look at the numbers makes it obvious that VAR can’t be the only answer. There have been 13 penalties awarded without the use of the VAR system, enough that this tournament would be on pace to set a record even without the video review. But that still leaves seven that have been awarded because of the system, making it a major contributor at the very least.

Beyond ‘Clear and Obvious’?

As with all penalty decisions, some of the VAR reviews have had a massive impact on matches.

Take, for example, the penalty award to Iran that allowed them to draw Portugal on Monday. Many felt that the handball call was extremely questionable, as the ball skimmed off Cedric Soares’ arm immediately off a header from Sardar Azmoun. The Daily Telegraph even called it the “Worst VAR decision of World Cup 2018” in a headline. As a result of the draw, Portugal fell behind Spain in the Group B standings, and will have to face Uruguay in the Round of 16 rather than Russia.

It’s possible that the call made after review was technically correct. But VAR is only meant to trigger a review from the on-field referee if they see a “clear and obvious” error, and it is hard to argue that this was the case when it came to that play.

“The VAR has to be the voice of the masses,” former EPL referee Peter Walton told ESPN. “Maradona’s hand-of-God – even most Argentines would say, yes, it was a handball. Those are the ones VAR is there for. It’s not there so that a second person can officiate the game just as the first person is doing.”

VAR isn’t just about penalties, however. The system is also used to review offsides and potential red cards, and the numbers suggest it is having an impact in these areas. The average number of offsides per game is the lowest recorded in any World Cup – probably a result of instructions given to assistant referees not to flag an offside unless they are absolutely certain about it – while there has been just three red cards issued in the entire tournament thus far.

According to former FIFA referee Keith Hackett, the presence of the video review system may be keeping players on their best behavior.

“They will have been told there are 33 cameras a game watching your every move, and the referees have four colleagues in Moscow watching them,” Hackett told the Telegraph. “Subconsciously, that does have an effect, on a positive note, on discipline.”

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