FIFA President Gianni Infantino on VAR, women's football, and the Olympics

In an exclusive interview for the Olympic Channel Podcast, Infantino said that 'we can't all pretend that VAR (video assistant referee system) is perfect'.

By Edward Knowles ·

FIFA President Gianni Infantino believes that the video assisted referees (VAR) will be a 'success' in the Premier League and that it's here to stay.

"We can’t all pretend it’s perfect. But, it is certainly progress."

The IOC member added that VAR was here to stay.

"I wouldn't take the current critics or criticism, from England in particular... in too much of a dramatic way," he added.

In an exclusive interview for the Olympic Channel Podcast, the most powerful man in world football also sat down to discuss the women's game and Tokyo 2020.

Olympic Channel: VAR has made an impact – not just on the field – but also culturally away from it. How surprised are you about this, especially in Britain?

Gianni Infantino: I'm surprised about the impact of VAR, even just as a concept or as a word, as a term. Let's not forget that the first event in which the VAR was used officially was the World Cup in 2018. So, one year and half ago and now and it is used in almost 50 countries regularly.

I think it's pretty normal for something that football has been waiting for for 150 years. We can’t all pretend it’s perfect. But what it is, it is certainly progress. It is certainly a step in the right direction and help for the referees.

And there is still some fine tuning to be done - in certain countries in particular. But if you look up the term progress in the dictionary, you'll probably find the definition ‘better than before’. Some say this, before we had a whole bunch of decisions which were wrong.

After we have a whole bunch of decisions which were wrong before that have become right. Not all of them, but a whole bunch. So, it is definitely progress.

There is no reason why in England it cannot be successful if it has been successful everywhere else - FIFA President Gianni Infantino on VAR

FIFA President Gianni Infantino sits down with Olympic Channel for exclusive interview
FIFA President Gianni Infantino at FIFA Women's World Cup news conference 

OC: I think some of the average fans, they're losing sight of that perhaps. How concerned are you that that battle for the hearts and the minds of the fan in the stands is being won for FIFA in favour of VAR?

GI: I'm confident when I see the experience made in those countries which are using VAR now three years, such as Italy, for example. At the beginning, they went through some turbulent times with some critics. So, I wouldn't take the current critics or criticism, from England in particular and the Premier League, in too much of a dramatic way.

We have to take it seriously. We have to take it into account. We have to study it. But if we look at how it was implemented around the world, everywhere, it has been successful. There is no reason why in England it cannot be successful if it has been successful everywhere else.

We will work together and if we need to adapt, we will adapt certain things because it's a work in progress. We want to be modern. We want to be listening to the experiences.

VAR has been used by some of the world's top leagues since the FIFA World Cup in 2018

OC: Referees have an incredibly difficult job. And since VAR has been introduced offside decisions have been looked at with a scrutiny that didn’t happen before. It used to be that the referee’s decision was final. But with VAR, millimetre decisions are looked at with great detail but still no clarity.

GI: I think as technology improves the fine details will become more and more clear. We also must see how VAR has to be applied. For example, it is important that VAR is there to support the referee. It shouldn't be somebody else. Taking the decision on behalf of the referee and how VAR is implemented in almost every part of the world, but not everywhere.

There are some issues which come out of that as well. The referees have to check and then they have to take a decision. And if there is no clear evidence for them, for example, that situation is black or white. But if it's grey, well, then the referee has to take responsibility and decide according to what he has seen. I think it is part of a new system which we are working on. But, we are very happy because we have to look at the overall picture.

A tight VAR offside decision in the English Premier League

OC: How does FIFA plan to strike that balance between what is the flow of the game and getting decisions right?

GI: When it comes to the flow of the game, this was one of my greatest worries before testing it. And when we tested it and when we actually implemented it as well, we found out that it actually doesn't interrupt the flow of the game.

The intervention is, at the end of the day, is around once every three games. And I think football can afford to have one intervention, every three games in order to change a decision which would otherwise have been wrong.

It gives more justice. It cleans the game a bit more. It has a lot of positive side effects because players they know now they cannot get away with things that before, they would have managed to escape. Things like simulations (diving) and so on have dramatically decreased in those leagues which have implemented VAR.

I think when we analyse the situation, we shouldn't be taken in by the heat of (moment), which can be wrong. But we should take a step back, analyse the whole picture, and then decide.

OC: Let's go over to the women's game, which is growing and has grown, especially over the past 12 months at an exponential rate. We've not seen it happen like this before. But it would be foolish to think that the job is is done when it comes to equality in football. How far away do you think we are from having a female footballer with the profile, money, power, and, influence of someone like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

GI: I hope we're not too far. And what we have seen last year and in 2019 with the Women's World Cup in France has really been unprecedented. Viewing figures (have been good), including in countries in which women's football was not really relevant before, such as Italy or Brazil, but also in England and the USA, obviously.

France was incredible. Now, we have to build on that, which is, I think, our task by offering new events, new competitions, new ideas to the women's game. It shouldn't just be a copy and paste of the men's game. We must be innovative.

We have to be creative in the way we organise ourselves, in the way we commercialise. This is certainly one of the big mistakes which was done in the past, probably by all sports governing bodies, a broadcaster would receive (women's football rights) in kind for free or on top or just as a goodwill gesture.

This definitely has to change. We need dedicated resources for the women's game and we need stars as well.

We have certainly a few that are coming up and I hope that, well, in the near future we can see women having the same impact as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the men’s game.

We need dedicated resources for the women's game and we need stars as well - Infantino on women's football

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OC: There's been talk of a Women's Club World Cup could be started by FIFA. What are the plans for this tournament?

GI: I'm very happy that the FIFA council followed my request in this respect and my recommendation to invest one billion U.S. dollars in the development of the women's game in the next 40 years. This one billion would be invested in competitions for women at the grassroots level, but also the top level.

My proposal is to think about an annual competition which does not exist: the Club World Cup for women. We need to focus on building clubs in Europe. In particular, the professional European clubs have understood it and now most of them have the women's football section within the club. This is helping a lot, but we need to make sure that club football develops as well outside of Europe. And for this reason, I think that a Women's Club World Cup is definitely needed and something good. It can even be played every year or every two years because there is a lack of top level competitions for the time being. And we need to close this gap and this lack and let's see if we can get some support for that.

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OC: Would FIFA consider running it at the same time as the men’s Club World Cup?

GI: The women's tournament, I think it should be a specific tournament. I think if we want to have women's football develop, it shouldn't just be the opener of the men's game, Maybe we could have it for the first tournament or something as a good promotion to kick it off. But it has to develop on its own because it has the possibility to become huge. The last FIFA Women's World Cup for national teams attracted more than one billion viewers.

This is way above even other men's sports. I think the potential is there to give it an important segment in the international (calendar).

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OC: Are you excited now as an IOC member to be heading to Tokyo 2020?

Definitely. I will be there. I'm excited. Tokyo is a beautiful city. And this summer will be a big, big celebration of sports.

I'm looking forward to go to watch some of the other sports, not only football, that's this unique element of the Olympic Games, but the football tournament will be great as well, the women's one in particular, where we have all of the top players competing. After the World Cup in France, the Olympics in Tokyo will be great for the promotion of the women's game.

Gianni Infantino was this week's guest Olympic Channel Podcast. Find more football interviews and how to subscribe here.

The questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.