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France faces Croatia in the World Cup final on Sunday. It marks the end of a month when soccer fans have been glued to their screens. And so have the referees. This is the first World Cup where they've used video replay. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports on the controversy that's caused.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Tensions were high Tuesday at a crowded bar in New York packed with sweating Belgian and French fans.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Chanting in foreign language).
GARSD: As raucous as soccer gets, it's also a game of charades used to communicate with the referee. Players hold up invisible infraction cards to ask that an opponent be penalized. The ref points at his eyes to acknowledge a misbehaving player. And this year, a new gesture has been added. A box drawn in the air means let's check the video replay.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Let's go, Belgium.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Let's go. Let's go.
GARSD: Fans of basketball and football are used to the referee stopping the game to consult with the video replay. But soccer purists say it's ruining everything.
MARTIN ROGERS: I remember back in the day when if a game kicked off at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, you'd be all wrapped up by 4:45.
GARSD: Martin Rogers is a sports columnist for USA Today. He says the overuse of video assistant referee, or VAR as it's called in soccer, is making the matches drag on. Rogers says video replay works for football and basketball.
ROGERS: When you look at the calls that are used for replay in basketball, for example, it's normally factual. It's based on, did a player get a shot off before the clock expired? It's easy. You know. It's black and white. But soccer is such a subjective game.
GARSD: He's referring to one of the most hated and beloved qualities of soccer - the endless drama. Take a player like Brazil's Neymar, the Meryl Streep of soccer. He dives spectacularly when a player merely brushes him, agonizes on the ground, hoping to get the ref to call a foul on the opposing team. Rogers says with performances like that, a human referee is more effective than video.
ROGERS: You can see that there's been contact, but the video doesn't show how hard that contact is, especially in slow motion. So it's really, really difficult to tell.
GARSD: But FIFA, soccer's governing body, says video reviews are close to perfection. That's a shift from some of the egregious wrong calls made in soccer games in the last decade or so, mistakes that went viral on social media. Chris Bowerbank hosts the soccer podcast Across the Pond.
CHRIS BOWERBANK: I think it was just a matter of time before FIFA looked at other sports and how video technology has been used and trying to bring it into this game.
GARSD: Bowerbank thinks video replay may have had a positive impact on this World Cup. Players are behaving better.
BOWERBANK: There have been zero foul play or violent red cards in this World Cup. And part of it might be that, you know, there is a camera on people now at all times.
GARSD: Back at the crowded pub in Manhattan, the end is near. France is winning 1-0. It's a cautious game, and the ref never consults with VAR. Outside, I run into Kenneth Coremans from Belgium smoking a cigarette with his friend. He's been crying.
Did you feel like at any point they should have used video referees for this?
KENNETH COREMANS: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yes.
COREMANS: Yes, definitely.
GARSD: As they explain, two French fans walk by and taunt them.
COREMANS: Good moments for us to take that free kick that's...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).
COREMANS: Yeah. And there...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).
COREMANS: There's the arrogance.
GARSD: That's the thing about soccer. It can be really cruel. And that's the thing about using new technology. It can be annoying until you need it on your side. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.
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