Quite a first week of June for VAR. While I haven’t been able to watch all the international football being played, seems to me VAR has become even more prominent this summer, after bursting on the scene in last year’s World Cup. In this the early stage of VAR implementation virtually every game has generated a wide variety of talking points and its fair share of controversy.
African Champions League final
Let’s start with the biggest controversy. A continent’s most prestigious club game, the African Champions League final, was abandoned as a consequence of VAR. Oh, oh. Rub your hands together, critics. A golden moment for you as VAR sparks chaos as a game descends into a farce.
In the second leg of the final between Tunisia’s Esperance and Morocco’s Wyad Casablanca, with Esperance 1-0 up on the day and 2-1 on aggregate, a goal was disallowed for the Moroccan side, who refused to continue playing, after discovering the goal could not be checked with VAR. My understanding, from reading a few reports, is that the entire VAR system was not working. Equipment was fine, just…not in the right country.
Apparently the officials were aware VAR was not working but the players didn’t. If correct, that suggests an enormous mistake on the part of the officials, and one that is very hard to understand. I struggle to believe they could be so foolish. In truth, it was not an issue of VAR not working, but the equipment simply not being there as a result of a series of logistical f-ups. A third party allegedly messed up with the original set of equipment and couldn’t deliver. The 2nd, hastily arranged, set arrived incomplete after a baggage handling failure. Unfortunate as all that is, it remains incredible to think the officials did not fess up and tell the teams and managers what the situation was.
So that’s that, a real mess, but clearly not a fault with VAR per se. I’m also tempted to think there may be more to it; that the teams may have been informed beforehand of an issue with the non-functioning VAR but, as is common to football, players and officials will attempt to leverage anything in the heat of the action.
For a while at least we can expect to see some of that attitude migrate to VAR issues. For instance, in an U20 world cup match I watched, the Malian team, after conceding, protested heavily and were reluctant to resume play. They seemed to be insisting to the ref should perform an on-field review …even though the only possible issue with the goal looked to be one of offside. These players acted ignorant of the simple rule that there is “no on-field reviews for off-sides”. It is a black-and-white issue, settled by VAR technology. Until the rules of VAR become firmly established in public consciousness we can expect players to be ignorant of the protocol or pretend to be.
Portugal v Switzerland.
A phenomenal sequence of events, testing VAR to its limits. A penalty claim in the Portuguese box saw the ref refrain from calling it, followed immediately by Portugal breaking up the other end of the pitch, where, incredibly, they then draw a clear foul, and the ref does point to spot. But wait. After the VAR booth folk have done their thing, communicating with on-field ref as they do, off to the pitch-side monitors we go. I expected no pen for the 1st incident, pen for 2nd, as after numerous replays I had still seen no contact on the Swiss attacker. To my surprise penalty is given for the 1st. Just as I’m trying to process that, a replay is shown which clearly shows there was a touch, and that it is a good decision.
Wahey. Plenty to unpack from that. First, thorough test and VAR came up trumps. A situation where, under the old system, a huge game-changing injustice would have occurred. VAR, despite being under huge pressure, delivered the goods in style. Second, it seems unavoidable that occasionally things will go wrong as a result of the right replay not being found in time. Oh oh. Hard to swallow, but unavoidable, unless there are no time constraints at all, which isn’t reasonable. Unless you are one of those people grumbling and protesting that VAR took too long to get the right decision.
England v Holland
Glory. An excellent goal in a very good game. 2-1. Not too long left. England close to reaching the Nation’s league final. Players ecstatic, fans even more so. Hold on a sec! The VAR check. Looks level to me first view. Then the lines come out. Offside.
About those lines. They look the real thing, all cold science or something, like the goal-line stuff. Don’t know if they are that accurate, but they look it. Whereas the early PGMOL trials…yikes! Take the Chelsea-Spurs league cup semi, where Kane was, erm, taken out by the goalkeeper. There was justifiable doubt about how accurate the system was, and it seemed it may have been a case of ‘pick an image, slap a line across’.
The reaction to the goal probably deserves its own article, with Martin Tyler perhaps providing the definitive ‘cake and eat it’ stance, or ‘I’ll accept it, sort of, but then I’ll also whinge endlessly if it produces a result I don’t like’. On and on he went, with many of the old favourites being touched upon; the stealing of emotion, the possibility of an injury occurring when the flag is kept down as per instructions. If your position is ‘there are downsides, but the upsides outweigh them’ the question then is…how much should you focus on the downsides? Another is, if you spend much more time focusing on the perceived downsides than the positives…are you really in favour at all? Should you not be, just bloody say it.
Man up, Tyler. You will know a person’s attitude to VAR by the emphasis they place on the importance of correct decisions being made. In Tyler’s case, it appears he is not a fan.
Oh, there were a couple of other incidents in the game. First, a handball that wasn’t, with an arm well away from the body as the player dived to block, and a touch off some part of the body. I’m fairly sure it went to the pitch side monitor, but don’t quote me. Anyway, it wasn’t a pen. Took a little longer than I’d expect, given first replay seemed to show definitively didn’t hit an arm, but right decision made.
Another incident was a little more troubling. Dutch player running into the box, two England players in close attendance, move breaks down. Dutch player protests emphatically about something, ref unequivocal in saying nothing in it. Shortly after, as play continues, replays show an England player jumped in strangely, appeared to get no touch of ball and brought man down. Oh oh. I presume the window elapsed without them finding that angle in VAR box, or they were napping and didn’t twig a check was needed. Very easy to take when you don’t have skin in the game, not so much if you do, big time. They’re human. These things will happen. They’ll get better over time but there will always be mistakes of various kinds.
That’ll do for part one. In part two – hear the thunder of honest, English hooves – with a Prem flavour to it.