Next year, Estonia will become the first country in the Baltics to use full-time video-assisted refereeing (VAR) in all its top-flight domestic football league fixtures. To accommodate the introduction of VAR to the Estonian top-flight, a specially equipped center for referees and referees' assistants is set to be built at the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn.
From 2023 onwards, the EJL will assign a video referee (VAR) and assistant video referee (AVAR) to each Meistriliiga match. VARs and AVARs will view games from a dedicated VAR center at the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, with the aim of ensuring greater fairness during top-flight games. The training of match officials, and the use of VAR in the Estonian top-flight (Meistriliiga) over the next three seasons, will cost the Estonian Football Association (EJL) €1.2 million.
According to Aivar Pohlak, president of the Estonian Football Association (EJL), this is an important step in the development of the Meistriliiga. "The Meistriliiga is important, both as the most professional and most watched (football) competition in Estonia, and also as a means of preparing players, clubs and referees for international matches. The video referee project has an impact in both of these areas and will make the league even more attractive," said Pohlak.
Video referees in the Estonian Meistriliiga will use the VOGO system, which includes Vokkero headsets, video servers, video referee monitors and a replay machine. The system is a simplified version of the one in use during European Championship qualifying games.
The aim of VAR is to increase the fairness of the sport by reducing the number of human errors made by on-field officials during games, that may have an impact on results. VAR can be used only for "clear and obvious errors" or "serious missed incidents" in four match-changing situations: goals; penalty decisions; direct red-card incidents; and cases of mistaken identity.
With the introduction of VAR, live television coverage of Meistriliiga matches will also continue to evolve, with additional cameras added to capture more of the live action. FIFA rules require a minimum of four cameras to be present during game in which VAR is in operations, with the Meistriliiga set to use as many as seven where possible.
VAR's introduction into the Meistriliiga will be carried out in close cooperation between the EJL and world football's governing body FIFA, ensuring that all procedures are carried out in accordance with FIFA's comprehensive guidelines.
The EJL will hold its first four-month long training program for 12 video assistant referees (VARs), 12 assistant video assistant referees (AVARs), as well 2 on-field referees, starting this November. VAR will then be trialed in matches during the pre-season Winter Tournament, which usually takes place early in the new year.
Training will be conducted by two Estonian former UEFA referees and referee observers Uno Tutk and Hannes Kaasik, who will be supported by FIFA specialists.
Head of Estonian FA: We had to join sooner or later
"Virtually all international top-level football is played with VAR. Sooner or later, we had to join in, and our response is, the sooner the better," said Pohlak.
Pohlak also explained the benefits for the Estonian referees, who, without the requisite training are unable to officiate during matches at international level. At present, Kristo Tohver is the only Estonian referee who holds a VAR license.
"If you look at it from the referee's point of view, it is very clear that today it is no longer possible for referees to have an international career if there is no video refereeing dimension in their (domestic) league," explained Pohlak.
Due to the shortage of trained personnel, an official could end up working both on the pitch as a referee and also in the VAR center at various points during a single weekend.
"We have a very intense four months coming up. We basically have to do a year's work in six months, as Estonians are wont to do. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is," said Ain Alev, referee training manager at the Estonian Football Association.
"We are only training the top referees, that much is made extremely clear in the UEFA guidelines," Alev explained, adding that it is not possible to use lesser-qualified officials to boost the numbers.
Editor: Michael Cole