VAR: A gain or pain to football?

May 4, 2019
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When Raheem Sterling scored in the 95th minute of the UEFA Champions League second leg match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs at the Etihad, all hell broke loose.

That goal meant that the Citizens had qualified for the semi-finals, beating the Spurs 5-4 on aggregate. Coach Pep Guardiola ran, jumping and celebrating his victory. Man. City fans had gone to celebrate the goal with the English striker.  Even Tottenham fans were shocked. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris sat on the floor stunned and fans were seen putting their hands on the head.

Suddenly, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir blew the whistle, disallowing the goal. The Video Assistant Referee, a new technology introduced into football had caught Sergio Aguero offside, shortly before giving Sterling the pass that led to the goal.

Emotions changed immediately from joy to despair for Man. City, and from pain to joy for Tottenham. The English Premier League leaders were dumped out of the competition on away goal rules.

This is not the first time the VAR would be involved in critical decisions like this. Introduced in England in November 2017 when the Three Lions faced Germany in a friendly match, the VAR is usually handled by a team of three people who work together to review certain decisions made by the main referee by watching video replays of the relevant incidents.

They comprise of the video assistant referee himself (who will be a current or former referee), his assistant and a replay operator. They are usually situated in a video operation room which is essentially a bank of monitors offering different camera angles.

There VAR is responsible for four major decisions such as Goals and whether there was a violation during each episode of the attacking phase of play, Penalty decisions, direct red card decisions and mistaken identity in awarding a red or yellow card.

In consulting the VAR, the center referee stops play after being contacted from the operation room, blowing the whistle and making a sign of a rectangle with his index fingers indicating a video screen.  He goes to the monitor located in the touchline, just beside the team bench, to review the incident alone, and then takes a decision from what he has seen.

FIFA approved the use of VAR for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in 2018, making the tournament become the first competition to use VAR in full at all matches and in all venues. A total of 455 incidents were checked by the VAR in the competition with twenty decisions reviewed. The first was in the match between France and Australia where Antoine Griezmann was through on goal when he went down under a challenge from Joshua Risdon, with the VAR spotting it out, and the referee Andres Cunha, awarding the penalty.

There were controversial moments with the VAR during the World Cup. When England met Tunisia in Volgograd in the group stages, England striker Harry Kane was dragged down in the box during corners in what were considered obvious fouls.  Considering the nature of the penalty which was given to Tunisia in the first half, which appeared to be fairly soft, those sat in the VAR booth had no excuse to miss the two incidents. Sadly, they did, and had the Three Lions not won the match, a wide protest against the VAR would have begun that day.

Another VAR moment happened in the round of sixteen, when Russia met Spain at the Luzhniki stadium. Four days before the Spain/Russia match, the same Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir (in charge of the aforementioned UEFA Champions League match) was at the center when Nigeria played against Argentina at Saint Petersburg.  Marcos Rojo had tried to head the ball, but only managed to nod it onto his own arm. The referee waved away the appeals of Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo, and after he was pressured by captain John Mikel Obi, he went to look at the VAR, but came back refusing to award Nigeria the penalty.

However, when Spain met Russia at the Luzhniki stadium, Gerard Pique fouled the ball, this time unintentionally. He was on air with Artem Dzyuba who headed the ball on goal, and the ball hit the back of Pique’s hand. The referee awarded a penalty to Russia without consulting the VAR, bringing the decision against Nigeria four days earlier to questioning.

Arguments have it that the VAR is likely to kill the beautiful game of football. There is a possibility that referees will be afraid and sentimental in making decisions, as they would rely so much on the VAR.

With football atmosphere always electric, VAR is likely to kill it. Referees going all the time to cross-check decisions before taking decisions will douse the mood and thrill of the beautiful game.

There is also the sad possibility of not appreciating goals with the introduction of the VAR. With every goal scored, referees would go on to check the goal, and every incident involved. No one is perfect and some things should be allowed to pass without punishments. The VAR will not allow that, thereby killing the joy of the game.

There is the call for a review of the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), whether it is truly needed in football or not. This is to avoid the joy and passion of the beautiful game suffering an untimely death

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