What is life like when you are an international VAR? How do you combine refereeing on the pitch with sitting in the VAR control room? And how on earth do you train as a VAR? I’ve been wondering about these questions for a while now, and who better to give me some answers than Clay Ruperti? He’s a professional referee in the Netherlands and FIFA VAR since last January. The Netherlands has the VAR system since season 2018-19, so Clay must be quite familiar with it by now.
YungRef: You’re a referee in the KeukenKampioen Divisie and a FIFA video referee in the Eredivisie and during international games: which do you like the most?
Clay: When I started refereeing more than fifteen years ago, the VAR didn’t even exist. So naturally, I prefer being a referee. Then again, video refereeing is pretty exciting too. I mean, when you’re sitting behind those tv screens and all that fantastic technology, it’s quite something. But it’s a totally different discipline: you use different skills than when you’re out on the pitch.
YungRef: How do you prepare for games as a VAR?
Clay: Actually, the preparation is very similar to preparing as a regular referee. You put both teams under a zoom lens: you check rankings, key players, match conditions, etcetera. Before international games, we have a short meeting with the whole referee team. During games in the Netherlands, we are based at the Replay Center in Zeist, so we call the field referees when they’re in the stadium. Then we shortly discuss tactics and expectations.
YungRef: Is it hard to combine refereeing and being a VAR? To me, it seems to require a totally different mindset.
Clay: Of course it’s different, but hard? Not really. On the pitch, you have the final call, and you’re responsible for every decision: that’s the one thing I can think of. Oh, and maybe the fact that you sometimes have three games in one weekend: one as a ref, one as a fourth official and one as a VAR. In the beginning, that was a bit heavy. But I quickly got used to it.
YungRef: Do you take seminars to improve your skills as a VAR? If so: what are they like?
Clay: VAR-training is a regular element of our monthly meetings. We watch videos of match situations or simulations and then analyze them. Or we make our own decisions in a split-second and discuss them with colleagues. For UEFA, I followed only one online seminar at the beginning of last season, due to Covid-19. We did some technical and practical sessions about offside lines, about when a VAR should intervene or not, and the likes.
YungRef: Do you get assessment marks on your performance as a VAR?
Clay: Yes, but it’s different than with a regular referee report. When they examine VAR’s, they focus on questions like: did the VAR correctly intervene, did he give the referee the right advice, and so on. Also, our way of communication and use of language is crucial. When the VAR talks to the referee in The Netherlands, we always say “Zeist here”, referring to the place where the Replay Center is located. It’s crucial, because the referee needs to know who is talking to him in the headset. Anyway, for every aspect of the game you get either a plus or a minus.
YungRef: In the episode ‘Extra Tijd’ with Danny Makkelie you were the VAR. What is it like to be the VAR for an elite referee team?
Clay: It’s simply amazing to work with them, because you really learn a lot about teamwork and communication. I often do games with Danny, not only big games such as Ajax versus Feyenoord, but also smaller ones. As a FIFA video referee, I also get the chance to work with top referees from all over Europe. For example, I’ve been in Kazakhstan with Donatas Rumsas from Lithuania for a World Cup Qualification match. He also made his debut in the Champions League last December.
YungRef: Let’s talk about your job as referee in the Dutch second division. What is it like?
Clay: Our KeukenKampioen Divisie or KKD is great when you want to prepare for the Eredivisie (First League in NL): the game quality is really nice, and you also referee youth teams from the Eredivisie. They can’t get promoted to the first league, only relegated to a lower league. I’m in a group with about thirty-five referees active in the Eredivisie and the KKD. We are all part of the group ‘Scheidsrechters Betaald Voetbal’ (Professional Football Referees). I mainly take care of KDD games, of course, but each season we also get a couple of appointments in the Jack’s League, the highest amateur division. It’s part of our game plan.
YungRef: What are your goals for the coming years?
Clay: As a referee: keep doing those nice games in the KKD, and work step by step toward the highest level, the Eredivisie. It would be amazing to referee there. But as I said: step by step. We’ll see what happens.
And as a VAR: to be as invisible as possible. Naturally, I don’t have any influence over that, because you never know what will happen. But we sure want to be ready for that one difficult situation that might be coming up. If it happens, we want to be one hundred percent focused. And make the right call, of course!
YungRef: In all those years, what was the most valuable thing you learned?
Clay: Perhaps this: always be yourself, on and off the pitch. Watch and learn from other referees, but never change your own style, only improve it. Certain observers or coaches want you to referee in a certain way, but it’s better when you have your own personal style.
I also learned to deal with unexpected situations, with pressure and resistance.
But you know what? Refereeing is one big learning process, and it never stops.
YungRef: Last one: do you have a valuable tip for young referees?
Clay: First, like I just said: stay close to who you are. Go watch colleagues at any level: you’ll definitely learn something that helps you improve your own referee skills. And finally: enjoy every moment of this amazing hobby.
A valuable tip indeed, Clay. Thanks for talking about refereeing and the VAR. All the best for the upcoming season!