As the Royal Belgian Football Association (URBSFA-KBVB) prepares to deploy additional assistant referees (AARs) in its major domestic competitions for the second half of the season, UEFA's chief refereeing officer Pierluigi Collina has visited the association to offer support and guidance, and explain the advantages of the system, which is proving its worth in UEFA's major competitions.
"It was really felt that we needed to support the referees, as the game of football had changed a lot in the last 20 years," Collina told a press conference in Brussels. "First of all, there was the much increased speed of the game. Football is played much more quickly and we realised that even with the referee being excellently prepared, he was not able to take a decision in some specific situations.
"After UEFA EURO 2012, on 5 July 2012, IFAB decided to include additional assistant referees in the Laws of the Game, and confederations and national associations are now free to use them in their competitions according to the Laws of the Game."
After some four years of trials in UEFA youth and club competitions, additional assistant referees became part of the Laws of the Game following a decision last summer by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).
The referee, two assistants and fourth official are joined by two additional assistant referees positioned alongside each goal line, with the particular brief to watch for incidents in the penalty area and help the match referee in taking decisions. UEFA is currently using AARs in its club competitions, after they were also successfully deployed at UEFA EURO 2012.
The URBSFA-KBVB has chosen to introduce the system from the semi-finals of the Belgian Cup later this month, and in the domestic championship play-offs which take place in the spring after the final matches of the season's regular league programme.
Paul Allaerts, technical director for refereeing at the URBSFA-KBVB, said: "This project is part of the further professionalisation of refereeing in Belgium, and is intended to deliver better decisions, especially regarding crucial situations in and around the penalty area and in offside situations. Also, it will enable better judgement in match phases in which the ball did or did not cross the goal line."
UEFA recently sent its member associations a DVD which provides essential information on AARs, and held a workshop in Nyon in which FAs were briefed and advised about the system.
Collina explained: "The main goal of the AAR system is to support the central referee when an important decision in or around the penalty area has to be taken. What we achieved so far in more than 1,200 matches is a better control of the match, a reduction of incidents at corners and free-kicks, a better control of the goal line, and improved accuracy in the offside decisions taken by the assistant referee."
Reaction to the URBSFA-KBVB's move has been positive. Allaerts said: "On the one hand, everyone understands that the role of the referee team is getting tougher all the time, and on the other, experiences in the [UEFA] Europa League, [UEFA ] Champions League and [UEFA] EURO 2012 have shown that better decisions were made, which is still the absolute priority for the referee team.
"The referees have reacted positively, because the extra pair of eyes of the AARs have convinced them that this can deliver better control of the match, and the referees are getting extra information to help them make a correct decision."
Some Belgian referees already have experience of the system through UEFA assignments, and specific preparation and training work is already under way under the guidance of Belgian referee fitness expert Werner Helsen, who also looks after UEFA's top match officials.
"The main responsibility is to improve the quality of the game," said Ronny Verhelst, president of the ProLeague, Belgium's professional football body. "As we all know, the referees and their decisions are most important in ensuring the quality of the game, and we are very happy to be able to offer this solution."
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