Sequestration of Plasmodium falciparum-infected erythrocytes in the placenta is responsible for many of the harmful effects of malaria during pregnancy. Sequestration occurs as a result of parasite adhesion molecules expressed on the surface of infected erythrocytes binding to host receptors in the placenta such as chondroitin sulphate A (CSA). Identification of the parasite ligand(s) responsible for placental adhesion could lead to the development of a vaccine to induce antibodies to prevent placental sequestration. Such a vaccine would reduce the maternal anaemia and infant deaths that are associated with malaria in pregnancy. Current research indicates that the parasite ligands mediating placental adhesion may be members of the P. falciparum variant surface antigen family PfEMP1, encoded by var genes. Two relatively well-conserved subfamilies of var genes have been implicated in placental adhesion, however, their role remains controversial. This review examines the evidence for and against the involvement of var genes in placental adhesion, and considers whether the most appropriate vaccine candidates have yet been identified.