ABOUT 15 MINUTES before the final bell, long after Lionel Messi’s exquisite goal and the Nigerian equaliser, as the spectre of an Argentinean elimination began to appear all too real and the songs of fans began to die in their throats, a moment of tension occurred that could rival any other in this thrilling match.
It was a moment that would probably have been described as surreal had it not been happening since the start of this World Cup. The referee Cuneyt Cakir walking resolutely, red whistle in one hand, a microphone to his ear, leaving behind a field of protesting Nigerians and Albicelestes, the ball dead and the game momentarily in abeyance, to consult a little box with a TV set over whether a handball foul had been done by Marcos Rojo, which would’ve called for a penalty against Argentina.
This review system or VAR (video assistant referee) has arguably been the most influential element of this World Cup. Not a day has gone by when its usage (or lack thereof) hasn’t impacted a match and drawn controversy. It has gone from being praised to being vilified in the span of two days. After the Spain-Morocco match, where VAR correctly awarded a 90th minute equaliser in favour of Spain although the goal was initially ruled out for being offside, the Spanish captain Sergio Ramos said: “VAR didn’t save us, it just told the truth.” The next day, after Cristiano Ronaldo escaped with just a yellow card, even though VAR footage showed a wild elbow swing at an Iranian player, Iran’s manager Carlos Queiroz was furious. “It’s a red card or it’s not a red card,” he said. “My daughter can’t come home and say, ‘I’m sort of a granddad.’ Either she’s pregnant or she’s not.” And VAR was also instrumental in this tournament’s most sensational upset, when a VAR review in favour of a South Korean goal sent Germany crashing out of the competition.
VAR has radically transformed this World Cup. In a tournament where there are no clear favourites and the level of play on occasion has been sub-par, it has given proceedings a delicious new twist, adding a few astonishing storylines to go with the action on the field. There has been a glut of goals and a record number of penalties, all thanks in no small measure to VAR.
The way it works is like this. Four officials seated in a control room in Moscow, using video footage from 33 cameras inside the stadium, along with two others to check for possible offsides, help the on-field referee make a correct decision if he calls for their help. Else, they can also intervene in the course of a game on their own if they think a ‘clear and obvious’ error has been made by on-field officials on crucial decisions that concern goals, penalties, offsides, direct red cards and the identity of players. The idea is to minimise foul play and ensure a higher accuracy of referee decisions, while also restricting the technology’s use to only a few aspects so that the disruption of the game’s flow is kept at a minimum.
The system seems to have both supporters and detractors. Purists seem to hate it, because to them the game is nothing less than a performance art. For them, technology—insensitive to the human drama on the field and indifferent to the momentum that makes this game so thrilling—is the very antithesis to football’s art.
So far, VAR has had a mixed tournament. There have been several good calls, but also some bad ones, especially on the question of dealing with fouls. A system adopted to keep play as fair as possible only seems to have exacerbated the situation in some cases.
But VAR, for all its faults, has the potential to improve the game. Football is a beautiful game often played in an ugly way. Exaggerated dives, aggressive jostling and manhandling, career ending tackles and cheating are common. VAR—the ‘big brother’, as FIFA President Gianni Infantino once put it—could stop all that. It is already stopping it.
The technology does have its teething troubles. More efficiency will come with more experience. As some have suggested, the clause ‘clear and obvious’ errors will have to be reworked to make it more specific on what exactly video officials are to look for. The technology is sound even now. It’s unambiguous and objective. But the problem is the human in front of the review screen who must take a call. As someone said on Twitter, ‘All this whining about VAR is ridiculous. It’s like blaming CCTV for a burglary. If a referee watches a replay and still makes a bad decision then that’s down to the competence of the official, not the review system.’
The game will no doubt become cleaner, played with more skill and honesty. Moments like Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of god’ will probably earn players a yellow card.
On the night that Argentina played Nigeria, despite another referee awarding a penalty in a similar scenario in an earlier match (Portugal versus Iran), Cakir ruled against the alleged handball. Ten minutes later, Rojo was at the other end of the field, delivering a stunning goal into the German post. You wouldn’t need VAR to tell you what that was.