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The impact of VAR on football’s grandest stage

“Please sir, I want some more”

The introduction of goal-line technology marked a monumental turn in world football for the better, for it has signified an end to misguided spur-of-the-moment 50/50 decisions going in favour of one team, and against another. Understandably, it would be extremely difficult for an official on the goal-line to adjudicate whether or not the entirety of the ball crossed the whole of the line, but that failure meant that the presence of said officials was redundant, for they were incapable of performing the near totality of their task on the field.

Like everything, goal-line technology has its pros and cons, and the pros were highlighted when Edin Dzeko’s goal against Cardiff City became the first goal to be officially awarded by the technology. Likewise, when Bafetimbi Gomis’s late header for Swansea against Arsenal was clawed out by Ospina a split second after it crossed the line, the world sat up and took notice; it paved the way for these errors and the related consequences to be swept away into oblivion. This was pure, unadulterated advancement. And then suddenly, when Manchester City played Everton in the League Cup semi-final, it wasn’t. City, trailing to a simply stunning Ross Barkley goal, threw the kitchen sink at the Toffees. When Raheem Sterling’s cut back was shot by Kevin De Bruyne into the back of the net for City’s second goal of the night, the Evertonians cried foul, for Sterling had (marginally) run the ball out of play before cutting it back in, rendering the goal void in ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, the circumstances were not so ideal, for the same referee’s watch that buzzed when the ball crossed the goal line, did not do likewise for the touchline.

It was consequent upon this incident that the world was made to realise, that no technology is perfect. And admittedly, the goal line technology has played a monumental role in recent times, steering goals away from ambiguity and bestowing upon them instead, a tag of legitimacy.

And this case ultimately was tucked away amongst the archives and over time, dissipated away from our memories, and football went on smoothly once more.

However, this wasn’t to last till posterity. Season after season, the game became more physical, more fast, more demanding, and the pulses of fans and players went racing to higher and higher limits. However, with these developments, the job of the referee grew tougher and tougher – and with the inflow of tactics like exaggeration of contact impacts, outright simulation, and deceiving the officials – getting decisions wrong became an occupational hazard, with potentially dropped points and sub-par results for clubs being the collateral damage. Clearly, the referees needed assistance, some higher power that they could turn to for all the answers, or at least the facility to be able to review the action from a better position and take the necessary call from an informed standpoint.

This was provided by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). With VAR, the “more” in terms of betterment of the game that the football fans wanted was provided to them. It was a theoretically flawless system, allowing referees to communicate with a team of officials seated behind monitors, scrutinising every aspect of the game from every possible camera angle, scouring for discrepancies and taking remedial action, communicating the same with the referee as well. However, there is a huge difference between theory and practicality, and fans of the Bundesliga and the Eredevise will be quick to testify to that. With delayed calls, slowed down restarts and a limitation of what was actually in the purview of VAR, results were mixed. Sometimes, off the ball challenges and very late tackles, that were well disguised and accidentally overlooked were reviewed and the offenders were made to serve their fair sentence. On other occasions, players had to be called back from the dressing rooms to take a penalty that wasn’t initially awarded, before they were allowed to disperse once more.

Fans had different takes on the whole issue, with some crediting the officials for using the technology to arrive at the correct decision, irrespective of the time they took in the process. Others lamented the loss of the quick tempo of the game, which had to sacrificed in the process, stating instead that the element of human error, which made football imperfect, yet unpredictable and captivating, was better than the frequent checks and avoidable delays.

At the World Cup, we have seen numerous decisions being referred to by VAR, with mixed results, as expected. With the penalties awarded to France and Australia at the beginning of the tournament, the system showed how useful a tool it was in arriving to the correct conclusion. On other occasions, its limitations have been highlighted. With a questionable penalty awarded to Iran against Portugal after VAR review, and the equaliser scored by Iago Aspas almost at the same time in another game of vital importance masked in controversy, it took a mere 5 minutes for fans to once more question the validity and the significance of the VAR, feeling that not only did it slow the game down, but it left a lot of fans and players too, feeling hard done by. The ultimate utility of the system was that the end product was to be such that it was unanimously accepted, seeing that it was analysed thoroughly before the verdict was brought to public notice. However, in those 5 minutes, the footballing world was turned upside down. Nordin Amrabat was left aggrieved to the extent that he didn’t shy away from ventilating his views on the technology, bashing it on live television. Likewise, the following day saw the dramatic, yet controversial elimination of Nigeria at the ‘hands’ of Argentina, with Marcos Rojo simultaneously being the messiah for half the stadium, and public enemy number 1 for the other half after executing a late winner that any out and out striker would have been proud of.

Opinions were divided once more on the take of the officials after the full time whistle went, with one half claiming that since Rojo headed it onto his own hand, it couldn’t possibly be helped and the penalty couldn’t be given. Others felt that that Rojo was clearly interfering with play and depriving Odion Ighalo of a clear goalscoring opportunity. But in this debate, both sets of fans had the opportunity of citing several precedents to support their cause, but the absolute thing that would have won them the argument was ambiguous and subjected to perception – the law itself.

It must be brought up here, in fairness to the VAR, the benefit of hindsight that it has provided. Had it not been for the technology, defending champions Germany might still have been in the running, for it was via VAR review that the referees discovered that it was indeed a German toe that poked the ball to Kim Young-Gwon, and ergo the offside call initially made was rendered moot. Likewise, had it not been for the benefit of review, Antoine Griezmann wouldn’t have had to opportunity to score his first ever goal at the World Cup finals, for the referee had initially waved away the penalty claim that he, after consultation using the on-field monitor, finally awarded. It should also be mentioned that Davinson Sanchez’s challenge on Sadio Mane in the final game of the group was initially seen as illegal, and a penalty was awarded. A penalty, which if scored, would have thrown the entire group a curveball, with Japan, Colombia and Senegal all in the hunt for qualification. After due consultation, the official was quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of the challenge, and reversed his decision.

Perhaps taking into consideration the events of this World Cup: The benefit of review to get decisions right, the calm before the storm whilst the review was ongoing, the decisions finally taken sparking debates to last for days, unprecedented levels of adrenalin rushes and simply the overall package of an unforgettable event thus far for fans, both seasoned and first time viewers, reminds us all of what made football so addictive in the first place.

In conclusion, it must be remembered that the VAR is simply an assistance tool, to be used by the officials at their discretion for illumination than vision. The technology itself has no power to give or take away, that is solely in the hands of the official. And keeping that in mind, I will state, a little controversially, that the VAR is a successful addition to the football world, and one that is here to stay.

Ayush Verma

20. Student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Manchester City correspondent for 90MAAT

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