Can football learn from handball’s video replay system?

FEATURE: At EHF EURO 2020, video replay technology ensures players and fans do not have to wait around for a referee’s decision

Referees Slave Nikolov and Gjorgji Nachevski check the video replay during the main round match between Slovenia and Iceland. Photo © Nebojsa Tejic / kolektiff

The introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) to help match officials in football, especially in England’s Premier League this season, has regularly hit the headlines with players, coaches and fans expressing their frustration of certain aspects of how the technology is being used.

One of the most common criticisms of the system in football is that VAR officials sit in front of a wall of screens detached from the action, making decisions in a room miles from the stadium.

Referees are no longer officiating the game with just their assistants. VAR is now there, chirping in the ear of the referee.

There might have been a handball back there that you missed. We’ll have a check and let you know.

In such circumstances, the game can be stopped for several minutes while the VAR officials take their time rewinding and freeze-framing an action replay in order to make a decision.

“In handball that would just be impossible – we are making up to 90 to 100 decisions per match,” says Denmark’s Martin Gjeding, who forms one half of the European Handball Federation’s elite referee couples together with Mads Hansen.

“To have someone in your ear all match would completely disturb the rhythm of the match. Speaking so much all the time would be crazy.”

Blink and you’ll miss it

With the way the EHF employ the use of video technology at EHF EURO 2020, handball players, coaches and fans do not have to wait for a decision to be made by an official sitting in a room 200 miles from the arena.

All decisions on the field are down to the referees on the court and the delegates sitting in the front row. Its use is simple: if the referees believe they have missed something, they take one minute to review the footage in order to make a decision.

“The responsibility is fully and completely with the referees on the court and delegates and them alone,” explains Helmut Höritsch, who oversees the EHF’s education and competency network.

“There is no outside interference. We leave all on and off court decisions to those directly involved in the game. In football’s VAR system it is a group decision, often made by those who intervene from outside. That is not the case in handball.”

The Third Eye

The video replay system – which first came into use at the Women’s EHF EURO 2016 – is in place to allow the officials to make a decision in two circumstances.

The first allows the referees to see if the ball has crossed the line or not. The second instance gives the officials an opportunity to review footage of whether a player has committed serious foul play or unsportsmanlike conduct. If they have, they will receive a red card.

Referees are also assisted by technology when it comes to the identification of substitutes, as well as whether there has been an illegal use of the timeout buzzer – coaches must not press it when the opposition are in possession of the ball.

The point is, given the speed and intimacy of handball, things can, and do, get missed.

But that is where technology comes in to ensure crucial, potentially match-defining, decisions are called correctly by those with the whistle.

“The important thing is that we make the big decisions right and we are able to make them in the hall,” continues referee Martin. “The computer is not a third referee, we don’t see it that way. We use it when we are in doubt and only if the really big situation needs us to make the right decision.

“It means I am also happy with my own decisions. The interpretation of the video still lies with you. That is not the case in football. My partner and I can discuss the scene between ourselves and can watch the video. We don’t have anyone else in our ear, interrupting,” Martin says.

“At the end of the match I am happy because the player or coach can come to me. I cannot send a player 200km away to complain to someone else sitting in a room.”

It’s better to be safe than sorry

The standard of refereeing at this championship has meant that video replays have only been used on a handful of occasions.

In Spain’s main round win over the Czech Republic, referees Arthur Brunner and Morad Salah had to view whether Adrian Figueras’ goalbound shot had gone over the line. It was tight, but it had – but without a second viewing the referees could not be 100 per cent sure.

“I thought it was a goal myself, but I didn’t know completely so it was good to know that it was definitely a goal,” Figueras said after the match. “If you have a tool like this it is important to check.”

While the importance of the goal was not of vital significance given the reigning champions won by six points, there have been times where the technology has played a key role.

German right wing Tobias Reichmann recalls the first ever case in which video replay came into effect, in the dramatic VELUX EHF FINAL4 semi-final of 2016 when PSG’s Igor Vori was shown a red card.

“It was a clear red card in my opinion so I was happy that the referees requested the video replay,” says Reichmann, who was playing for Kielce at the time. “Finally maybe this situation was a reason, why we made it to the final.

“It is good that this video replay was implemented in handball. Many situations in handball happen so quick that the referees cannot see everything. Therefore, it is good to have this system – and in contrast to football, it works perfectly.”

Austrian captain Nikola Bilyk is another high-profile player in favour of the technology.

“It is a good innovation for handball that referees can check tricky situation by video,” says the THW Kiel star. “Maybe they can even use it more often. It makes their decisions more transparent and can avoid mistakes, which might decide a match.”

The final whistle

The way a video replay is communicated to fans inside arenas also gives the paying public an improved experience. Announcements and graphics immediately alert the spectators to the situation. There is no confusion here.

However, despite the praise and plaudits the procedure receives now in 2020, the use of technology in handball has not always run so smoothly. The sport continually changes and throws up new, unthinkable, scenarios.

These have allowed the EHF to tweak and change the use of technology, in accordance with the official laws of the game, to help think about how the process can be fairer and quicker for the benefit of everybody.

And that, perhaps, can give those involved in football hope with VAR.

“It was not perfect when we started and it never will be,” admits Höritsch in conclusion. “We have changed things over time – now referees only have one minute to make a decision when viewing back the footage – and we will continually look at improving it.

“We never want to deprive fans of the emotion when a goal is scored. At the end of the day, we want to leave the handball decisions with the referees on the court.”

written by Andrew Barringer / jh