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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea's pro football league looking to regain fans with video assistance

2017/05/24 09:00

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By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, May 24 (Yonhap) -- They say refereeing mistakes are a part of football's unpredictability that also depicts human nature in the sport, but for South Korean fans, enough is enough.

Following a series of refereeing mistakes, the South Korean professional football league recently decided to introduce a video assistant referee (VAR) system earlier than scheduled -- a measure to soothe angry fans and regain their trust quickly.

The K League, the operator of the pro football competitions, announced last year that it will introduce the VAR system during the 2017 season after going through a test operation period. Originally, it planned to fully implement the VAR system starting on July 22, but it decided to start using the video review system three weeks ahead of schedule after refereeing controversies made fans turn their backs on the league.

"I have no doubt that the VAR system will improve the quality of the K League," said Kim Tae-ryung, a football commentator with local sports cable SPOTV. "People have worried about hurting the universality of the game and interruption during the match, but I think that's not a big problem compared to controversies created by missed calls."

  

A giant electronic board at Jeonju World Cup Stadium displays a message that indicates video assistant referees reviewing the incident happened during a FIFA U-20 World Cup Group A match between Argentina and England in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap) A giant electronic board at Jeonju World Cup Stadium displays a message that indicates video assistant referees reviewing the incident happened during a FIFA U-20 World Cup Group A match between Argentina and England in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

Two major incidents have especially rocked the top-tier K League Classic so far this season, leading to fines on two general managers.

Gwangju FC General Manager Ki Young-ok was fined 10 million won (US$8,900), while Incheon United General Manager Kim Seok-hyun was slapped with a 7 million won fine by the K League discipline committee. Their fault: making negative comments about referees decisions to the media, a breach of K League Article 36-5.

Ki and Kim had a reason to be furious about the referees. Their respective clubs were "robbed" by bad officiating and video footage from local broadcasters clearly proved their claims.

On March 19, Gwangju FC faced defending champions FC Seoul and they were enjoying a 1-0 lead on the road. But in the 63rd minute, the referees awarded a penalty to Seoul after they ruled that Seoul midfielder Lee Sang-ho's cross hit the hands of Gwangju defender Park Dong-jin in the box.

The video replay, however, showed that Lee's cross actually hit Park's back. Gwangju eventually lost 2-1 to Seoul.

Following the incident, the K League expelled the main referee and suspended the assistant referee from that match. However, it didn't prevent another poor call from happening.

Incheon United experienced a similar case on May 7 against Gangwon FC. With Incheon leading 1-0, the referees decided to give a penalty to Gangwon in the 76th minute after they saw what appeared to be Incheon defender Connor Chapman's handball foul in the box.

The video replay, however, showed that the ball actually hit Gangwon FC winger Kim Kyung-jung's hands first before Chapman. Gangwon went on to convert the penalty and collect a 2-1 victory.

"I know I'm going to get fined for this, but I cannot tolerate that match-deciding missed calls are frequently happening," Kim said at his press conference on May 7. "These missed calls are killing the K League."

  

Match officials conduct on-field video review during the FIFA U-20 World Cup Group A match between Argentina and England at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap) Match officials conduct on-field video review during the FIFA U-20 World Cup Group A match between Argentina and England at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

Football pundits said the VAR system will reduce missed calls and will spice up the match -- exactly what fans have seen at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea, the first youth event from the world football governing body with video assistance.

The K League previously said it will test the VAR system operation at the U-20 World Cup before implementing the technology.

"Those two incidents would not have happened if we had the VAR system," a K League official said on the condition of anonymity. "We believe the VAR system will get rid of these refereeing controversies."

   Although the U-20 World Cup is still ongoing, the VAR system already made a splash from the start. On the opening day, Argentina saw their striker Lautaro Martinez getting ejected after elbowing England defender Fikayo Tomori in their Group A opener.

Referee Mohammed Abdulla Hassan first didn't catch Martinez' actions, but the VARs recommended an on-field review that led to a red card.

Hosts South Korea also had a play subjected to the VAR treatment. Against Guinea, South Koreans at Jeonju World Cup Stdium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, thought they were going to enjoy a 2-0 lead when Lee Seung-woo's cross met Cho Young-wook in the box in the first half extra time. Referee Julio Bascunan, however, canceled the goal after the VARs showed that the ball crossed the end line before Lee delivered a cross.

Argentina forward Lautaro Martinez (2nd from R) is shown a red card by the referee during a FIFA U-20 World Cup Group A match between Argentina and England at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap) Argentina forward Lautaro Martinez (2nd from R) is shown a red card by the referee during a FIFA U-20 World Cup Group A match between Argentina and England at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

Johannes Holzmuller, FIFA's Head of Football Technology Innovation, told reporters in a media briefing before the U-20 World Cup that video review will be used only when "match-changing" situations occur such as goals, penalty decisions, direct red cards and cases of mistaken identity. The K League will also use the VAR system in those four situations.

The players and the coaches have welcomed the idea of adopting the VAR system after watching how it is used during matches.

"I think we won't see many secret fouls or unsportsmanlike behavior on the pitch," Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors head coach Choi Kang-hee said. "I think we have to be prepared for the video review era. If there's a way to reduce refereeing mistakes, there is no reason to reject video review."

   The players at the U-20 World Cup who have already experienced the VAR system said the technology will certainly have some impact. For attackers, it can help them to play more aggressively, but for defensive players, it's another challenge.

"You have to be more careful because things like holding opposing players' jerseys during set pieces can be caught," said South Korean defensive midfielder Lee Seung-mo, who plays with the K League side Pohang Steelers. "The players need to be aware of what the VAR system can do."

  

In this photo provided by the K League, video assistant referees watch video feeds in an operation room for their test operation of the video review system for the K League Classic match between Sangju Sangmu and Suwon Samsung Bluewings at Sangju Civic Stadium in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by the K League, video assistant referees watch video feeds in an operation room for their test operation of the video review system for the K League Classic match between Sangju Sangmu and Suwon Samsung Bluewings at Sangju Civic Stadium in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

Pundits, however, said the technology will not completely solve the refereeing controversies because, after all, it's humans who ultimately make the final decision. Under the VAR system, the referee on the field can also decide not to look up the video footage if he or she is confident of the original decision.

"It's really important how the referees on the field perceive the VARs," said Hahn June-hea, a football commentator for local broadcaster KBS. "The referees should not consider the VARs to be people who challenge their authority on the pitch. The referees should think of them as good assistants who can help their efforts to regain fans' trust and make the game run smoothly."

   In the video operation room there will be two VARs and a video operator who will help the match officials find footage with the right angles. The K League previously said some 30 local referees have been taking intensive training in the VAR system, although it has yet to confirm how many VARs will actually be working for the league.

Hahn also pointed out the K League should work on the VARs getting better broadcast feeds with many angles. The K League previously said at least 12 cameras will be used, although the number of cameras could vary depending on the broadcasters.

"If you make a call based on video footage, you need to have videos with as many angles as possible," Hahn said. "Twelve cameras may not be sufficient compared to the number of cameras used in other leagues, and this can have blind areas. However, installing many cameras and bringing more people to manage the system means there's going to be a financial challenge."

  

In this photo provided by the K League, video assistant referees watch video feeds in an operation room for their test operation of the video review system for the K League Classic match between Sangju Sangmu and Suwon Samsung Bluewings at Sangju Civic Stadium in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by the K League, video assistant referees watch video feeds in an operation room for their test operation of the video review system for the K League Classic match between Sangju Sangmu and Suwon Samsung Bluewings at Sangju Civic Stadium in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, on May 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

The K League said it is trying to improve and fix the problems that emerge during its test operations. The officials have been testing the VAR system in the first division K League Classic since late last month after using the technology in low-tier leagues.

"We will have sessions to explain about our VAR system to the clubs before it is actually used in the top-tier league," said an official in the K League's public relations department. "It's going to be difficult to operate the system perfectly at first, but we will work hard to do so."

   kdon@yna.co.kr

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