Given that the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has become ubiquitous in professional soccer, it might be surprising to fans that the final round of World Cup qualifying matches in the CONCACAF region does not feature video review.
VAR helps to address clear and obvious errors or serious missed incidents by match officials, using video replays to get decisions right. U.S. national team head coach Gregg Berhalter was outspoken about his disappointment in the absence of VAR from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, which assigns three automatic berths to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“I think it’s an error by CONCACAF,” Berhalter said prior to the USA’s first match in qualifying. “I’m going to speak freely and say that because that’s part of the game. I think it was great that they implemented VAR in Nations League and Gold Cup, and it’s disappointing that it’s not part of qualifying. That’s where the modern game is going. We want to be right up there with the rest of the world, our region, in terms of the quality and the technology. And we need to find a way to get that done.”
After Mexico was denied a penalty kick in a 1-1 home draw against Canada, manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino joined the chorus: “Playing a World Cup qualifying without VAR is something to be criticized.”
FIFA’s regulations for 2022 World Cup qualifiers (Page 15) state: “FIFA and/or the confederation when applicable may use . . . a video assistant referee (VAR) system.” So it sounds like it’s optional, but the language doesn’t make it clear which organization bears the responsibility to make it happen.
Why is there no VAR in CONCACAF qualifying?
According to CONCACAF, it boils down to the fact that only three of the eight countries involved in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying have an established, certified VAR system in their respective nations: the USA, Canada and Mexico. And that’s because the top-tier pro leagues in those countries have adopted and invested in video review: Liga MX and Major League Soccer.
“The Concacaf region FIFA World Cup Qualifiers are FIFA matches subject to FIFA regulations,” CONCACAF said in a Sept. 2 statement explaining the absence of VAR. “A key criteria determining whether VAR could be used in this competition is for the technology to be currently available, in certified stadiums, for the matches of each of the participating federations. In the Final Round of the CONCACAF region FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, five of the eight competing federations do not meet this criteria.”
Whose responsibility is it to take the initiative and invest in the VAR infrastructure in the other countries and venues that don’t currently have it? Should it be each country’s league or soccer federation? CONCACAF? Or perhaps FIFA? World governing body FIFA has yet to respond to this point when posed the question by Sporting News, but here’s what’s happening in some of the other regions when it comes to VAR in World Cup qualifying:
Europe (UEFA): The European governing body’s executive committee decided in July 2021 that all remaining qualifiers use VAR after it started the competition without it. UEFA organized the implementation with the use of VAR vans.
South America (CONMEBOL): The South American body made its decision to adopt VAR for qualifying more than a year before UEFA did. The referee travel costs are assumed by FIFA, while CONMEBOL foots the bill for the technology.
Asia (AFC): The Asian confederation implemented VAR for its final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying.
VAR in CONCACAF competitions
CONCACAF employed VAR for the first time in 2021, introducing it in some of the high-profile competitions it organizes and oversees — the 2021 Gold Cup, the 2021 Nations League final four, and the semifinals and final of the 2021 Champions League. Those events were all held in the United States or Mexico, where VAR technology exists.
In March 2021, the organization also hosted VAR training in Costa Rica for a new pool of 22 referees from across the CONCACAF region.
VAR has been around for several years in the global professional ranks and it was officially added to the Laws of the Game in 2018. That was a year after Australia’s A-League and Major League Soccer (USA & Canada) had already formally adopted it. The English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League joined the VAR party in the 2019-20 season.
The first World Cup competitions to feature the use of video review were the men’s 2018 FIFA World Cup and the women’s 2019 FIFA World Cup.