VAR controversy

The 2018 World Cup kicked off last Thursday with the usual pomp and ceremony, and the fans of the game are filled with hope that their country will be lifting the World Cup trophy come Sunday, 15th July.

The first of three rounds of the initial group stage was completed yesterday, and followers of the tournament have had the opportunity to view all the teams in action.  The competition is of a very high standard, and two of the sport’s superstars have grabbed the limelight. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo’s spectacular free kick to complete a hat trick and level the score at 3 – 3 in the dying moments of the game with Spain, and Lionel Messi, who will be remembered for a rather limp opening performance which included a missed penalty, have responded to the pressure of the moment in different ways. However, two distinct elements have stood out in the early stages of the tournament.

Firstly, the gap between the current superpowers and tournament favourites, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain and France, and the other teams is closing rapidly, and it should not come as a complete surprise if another country such as Portugal or Belgium is added to the elite list of winners. Of the aforementioned favoured by the bookmakers, only France managed to win their opening encounter, in controversial circumstances to boot, as Spain, Argentina and Brazil salvaged draws, and the defending champions, Germany succumbed to Mexico 0 – 1.

The other salient element has been the influence of the much vaunted video assistant referee technology (VAR). VAR was introduced for the first time this year and is designed to improve on-the-field refereeing decisions. Well, after one round, the VAR has certainly stoked the fires of controversy. Complaints have raged and continue to rage, on its uniform interpretation and application. After only one round of play its influence on the outcome of games has been significant.

In France’s 2 – 1 victory over Australia, French superstar, Antoine Griezmann was awarded a penalty which he subsequently scored to give France a 1 – 0 lead. The referee had initially waved play on, but on reviewing the footage, he changed his call, and the first penalty in world cup history was awarded after the intervention of the VAR. Did John Risdon touch the ball before coming into contact with Griezmann? The popular question being asked is, if Australia was on the attack, would the VAR have been consulted?

With Portugal leading Spain 1 – 0, Spaniard Diego Costa appears to have blatantly fouled the Portuguese defender Pepe as he received the ball, en route to netting the equalizing goal. The referee reviewed the play on the screen on the sidelines and surprisingly maintained his original decision, and allowed the goal to stand.

The Brazilian Football Federation, referencing two incidents which apparently grabbed the attention of everyone except the referee, has written to FIFA, questioning why the VAR was not utilized consistently during their 1 – 1 draw with Switzerland. The Brazilian players complained long and hard to the referee that their defender Miranda was pushed when Switzerland’s Steven Zuber headed home the equalizing goal. Later, Gabriel Jesus was manhandled by the Swiss defence, and the Brazilians appealed for a penalty. Their appeals apparently fell on deaf ears as the referee considered neither occasion worthy of review.

With England leading 1-0, Tunisia’s Fakhreddine Ben Youssef was brought down by Kyle Walker, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. The VAR was not reviewed, and Tunisia drew level. Moments later, England Captain Harry Kane was brought down in similar circumstances, no penalty was awarded nor was there VAR consultation. In the second half, Kane, once again following a corner, was dragged down, this time in circumstances similar to those in which Croatia received a penalty in their clash with Nigeria. Again the VAR was not consulted.

Today, the tournament enters it seventh day and the VAR controversy seems to be growing with every passing day, as there is no consistency with when the VAR is being employed, and how the reviews are  being applied. Despite the obvious benefits of using the technology, the debates appear to be raging more and more as to what is the right or wrong call, when to apply the letter of the law, or when to wave on play.

Every referee has his own style of officiating a game. Some like to let the game flow with as few interruptions as possible; ‘let the boys be boys,’ calling only blatant and harsh fouls and preferring to caution players rather than booking or sending off offenders. Others prefer to adopt a field marshal approach and wish to control the ebb and flow of the game, and apply the rule book at every opportunity. Most referees, regardless of their style, despise having to change their calls. However, no one is infallible, especially in a fast paced sport such as football.

Presently, the VAR referee and his three assistants, upon reviewing a situation and noticing an error, would advise the match referee by earpiece of the possible error, which he in turn can review, if he so desires. Therein lies the rub. If he so desires. Have referees ignored advisories from the VAR and allowed their decisions to stand, rather than be over ruled?

The Brazil confederation’s letter to FIFA on Monday hit the nail on the head when it said, “these two actions constitute … clear errors by the referee, which thus form part of the reviewable decisions that are analysed through VAR.”  It further questioned if the plays were reviewed in any way, noting that “transparency is of essence.” The Brazilians also requested copies of the “video and audio recordings” that the match officials might have used during their reviews.  It would be interesting to hear how FIFA responds to the latter request.

FIFA needs to arrest this burgeoning problem immediately, before a team is knocked out of the tournament through the lack of application of the VAR. Maybe, they can take a page from the ICC’s book and let the man in the booth upstairs make the final call on controversial game changing moments, such as the awarding of penalties and the conformation of goals.

The last thing FIFA needs is a World Cup champion crowned under questionable circumstances.

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