Uefa has come in for a fair amount of stick during Euro 2020. The sprawling locations, the shuttling VIPs, the accommodation of unsavoury regimes and the blocking of protests against those unsavoury regimes have come under rightful scrutiny. Which makes it more notable that one thing commonly criticised at tournaments has gone rather well so far, and that’s the refereeing.
Statistics released by Uefa show striking changes in how the game has been officiated. The data covers only the group stage but, on average, in each match there was one fewer yellow card than in Euro 2016. In total there were 98 compared with 129, or 2.7 a match compared with 3.6 (by our calculations, that figure had risen to 2.8 a game by the end of the last 16). A second striking disparity comes in the number of fouls, down from 911 to 806 or 25.3 a match to 22.4. As a likely result of these changes, at least partly, the amount of time that matches were in “effective” play also rose by more than two minutes a match, from 56min 30sec, to 58min 51sec.
Uefa’s impressive chief of refereeing, Roberto Rosetti, has had the luxury of being able to draw together a team of referees from more than one continent, with 18 of Europe’s finest joined by the Argentinian Fernando Rapallini, who is at the Euros as part of an exchange project with the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol).
The team Rosetti has assembled has performed to a high standard. With an average age of 41 the cohort is experienced. Officials such as the Russian Sergei Karasev, who took charge of Hungary v Germany and the Netherlands v Czech Republic, and Romania’s Ovidiu Hategan, who showed red cards in Poland v Slovakia and Italy v Wales, are examples of officials impressing in their ability to control heated situations. The English referee Anthony Taylor has been singled out for praise by Rosetti after the way he handled the terrifying collapse of Christian Eriksen.
Referees with authority are better equipped to manage games but Rosetti has also complimented the behaviour of the players. Zero tolerance for serious foul play and a clampdown on simulation was the message before the tournament, a refrain that has likely been heard before. But a decision to meet each squad in person and explain those priorities appears to have paid off, with players having a better understanding of what is expected of them.
All this, despite the addition of VAR. It may feel like it has been chewed over for ever, but video refereeing technology did not exist in 2016. It, too, has had a good European Championship finals so far.
Uefa keeps a chart of the average time taken when VAR intervenes. After 36 matches it was at the lowest it had been in one of Uefa’s competitions, at about 100 seconds per intervention. This came despite a rise in the time a referee would spend at their pitchside monitor and appears to be have been significantly affected by Uefa’s decision to add an assistant referee to the VAR team, checking only for offsides.
According to the Uefa data, corrections on “factual” decisions (in practice, handball and offside) were taking as much as 30 seconds less to complete during the Euros than in last season’s Europa League. In total, VAR intervened on only 12 occasions in the group stages, eight of them on “factual” grounds. Raheem Sterling, who admitted to moderating his celebrations against Germany in case VAR called him back, may be free to celebrate more vociferously next time.
VAR has caused a direct rise in one statistic, with the number of penalties doubling to 14 in the group stage compared with Euro 2016 as borderline infractions were caught on camera. In the knockout stages VAR has intervened to give Switzerland a deserved penalty not spotted by Rapellini.
Rosetti argues that what we have been seeing so far is what VAR was always supposed to have been; not a second referee but an aid to officials. “The objective is to intervene for clear and obvious mistakes – minimum interference for maximum benefit,” he said. “We need to find the correct balance in relation to VAR intervention, because our target is to keep football like it is.”
As VAR has become less interfering, so have the referees. The stats back up a sense that there has been less intervention and more willingness to let the game flow. Players who make their living by making tackles have been less likely to be given cards, players who like to buy tackles have been less likely to win free-kicks. It would be very unlike football for there to have been a widespread outbreak of common sense but, with roughly 90% of the tournament down, that appears to be what is happening. Now only the most important decisions remain.