Among the surprises at this World Cup, next to the spotty performance of soccer powers like Germany, Brazil and Argentina and the impressive quantities of hair product used by many players, had been the fact that the introduction of VAR had not been an utter shambles.
The upper reaches of soccer, unlike major North American leagues, had resisted the lure of replay review for a long time, only introducing VAR — video assistant referee — in domestic leagues recently, and it had not gone swimmingly. The usual post-match griping about missed calls was replaced by post-match griping about calls caught by VAR, and there were all the usual complaints about the use of replay review: it killed the flow of the game, the officials were too quick to review even minor infractions, no one seemed entirely sure when it could or could not be used.
This led to much teeth-gnashing about VAR’s introduction at the World Cup: if the new system was being botched so spectacularly in places like England and Germany, how could it not be a disaster on the sport’s biggest stage?
But through much of the group-stage matches in Russia, the system had largely worked as intended. There were a lot of VAR reviews, yes, but officials tended to use it as a double-check that confirmed the calls on the field. And while the number of awarded penalties had spiked — there have already been more penalty kicks at this World Cup than any other, and the tournament has not even reached the knockout rounds — that’s essentially the point of the system. It’s meant to catch the fouls that are missed in the fast action of real time.
The VAR system also has one big element in its favour: coaches have absolutely nothing to do with it. There is no throwing of flags, no arbitrary limit of challenges, no way for the coach to play a role in the process other than to bitch about it. The VAR monitor-watchers — hilariously outfitted in referee uniforms as they sit in Moscow and study replays — contact the on-field referee when they think he has committed a howler, and he goes to see how badly he screwed up.
And so, despite all the worry, VAR was mostly working as intended.
The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that a lot of past tense has been used so far. VAR’s general success was blown up in the space of a couple of hours on Monday with a flurry of decisions in the Spain-Morocco and Portugal-Iran matches that settled Group B. When it was over, Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat gave a concise assessment of things: he made the VAR signal with his hands — you draw a TV monitor with your fingers, like you are playing charades — and then said that “VAR is bulls—t.”
In the course of those two matches, both of which ended in draws that allowed Spain and Portugal to advance to the knockout stages, VAR was used to award three penalties that were not called on the field and to award a goal that had been disallowed by an offside call. In stoppage time alone, VAR interventions allowed Iran to knot the game on a dodgy penalty call and Spain to keep its tying goal when Iago Aspas was (correctly) ruled onside. To add to the confusion, Spain’s Gerard Pique escaped a possible red card for a dangerous two-footed tackle and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo avoided one for elbowing an Iranian opponent. Pique’s tackle wasn’t even reviewed; Ronaldo’s elbow was, but the offence was deemed only worthy of a yellow card by a referee who was clearly sweating buckets, literally and otherwise.
All of a sudden, VAR had been revealed to be just like any other replay system: a process meant to reduce the number of controversies by correcting human error was now only adding to the controversies because there was still human judgment involved. And no replay could render that judgment infallible.
VAR works great when it catches a simple error, like the Spain goal in which Aspas was clearly not offside. But where it falls apart is where it forces a referee to make a judgment about something on which he has already made a judgment. In the Portugal match, referee Enrique Caceres gave Iran the late penalty on a dubious handball in the box, and it looked in real time like he had simply been swayed by the angry pleading of the Iranians.
This came not long after Caceres had reviewed, for several minutes, the foul that Ronaldo committed. It could easily have been ruled a red, but Caceres is standing there staring at a monitor, knowing that the red would not only have left Portugal down a man for the remainder of the match, but would have kept one of the game’s biggest stars out of his country’s next match. How many officials are going to be bold enough to make that call when they have time to think about it?
Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s coach, said after the game that VAR should be scrapped, and it was a sentiment echoed by many.
That’s not how it works, though. Once replay is introduced, there will be fiddles and fixes, parameters changed and new guidelines introduced, all in the hopes of eliminating the mistakes people make with a system run by people.
No one goes back and kills replay altogether. But it would be nice if the last big sport to use it was the first one to try.
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