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Has VAR been a success or horror show in the World Cup?

Friday 29th June 2018

The video assistant referee made its World Cup debut in Russia amidst mixed feelings. While many welcomed its introduction owing to the fact that it does help match officials get the decisions right on some incidents that are difficult to spot at first sight, others feel it hasn't really succeeded in solving the problem it is meant to solve.

Officials still get some decisions wrong even after a lengthy consultation. In the end, decisions are still subject to the referee's opinion. Some may agree with it, others may not. Hence, opinions have remained divided on the issue.

But the World Cup was expected to provide a platform to settle the argument once and for all. Unfortunately, rather than end the controversies associated with certain decisions made by match officials that are contestable, it seems to have become the source of controversy itself.

Let's look at some incidents where VAR has intervened in the tournament so far and see if it is really helping matters or it has simply been a waste of everyone's time.

The match between France and Australia opened the way for VAR in the tournament when Josh Risdon tackled Antoine Griezmann as the Frenchman was through on goal. The Atletico Madrid forward hit the ground leaving the referee with a big decision to make. Even though Andres Cunha initially dismissed the penalty calls from the French players, the intervention of VAR had him change his mind. He awarded a penalty after reviewing a footage of the incident.

Opinion remains split even after watching a replay as to whether the VAR decision was the correct one. 

When Argentina and Iceland took to the pitch in Group D, substitute Cristian Pavon was fouled in the penalty area in the closing stages of the match by Birkir Saevarsson but referee Szymon Marciniak dismissed the penalty appeals from the Argentinian players. But a closer look at the incident shows a penalty could have easily been given. VAR was silent.

The crunch tie between Peru and Denmark in Group C also called VAR to action as Yussuf Poulsen was adjudged (and correctly too) to have fouled Peru's Christian Cueva as he made his way into the box leading to a penalty.

During the Costa Rica vs Serbia game, a video review ensured that Aleksandar Prijovic received a yellow card for a strike on Johnny Acosta that could have easily been a dismissal if the referee did not have the benefit of video review.

The other Group E encounter involving Brazil and Switzerland also required VAR intervention when Steven Zuber appeared to have pushed Miranda from the back before heading in the equaliser for the Swiss. Referee Cesar Ramos was not interested in the Brazilian players' plea to consult the VAR. The Brazilian faithful viewed the incident as an injustice done to them.

But the Swedes did not face such in their game against South Korea as VAR intervened causing referee Joel Aguilar to award them a penalty for a foul on Viktor Claesson by Kim Min-woo.

However, one of the reasons video assistance is so widely criticized presented itself in the game between Tunisia and England. While a penalty was awarded against England when Kyle Walker fouled Ben Youssef in the box, Harry Kane was apparently pulled down twice in the box with no penalty given. This shows inconsistency in decisions as the second foul was similar to the one given against Ekong in Nigeria's game vs Croatia.

Another two contentious decisions involved Denmark's Yussuf Poulsen who was penalised for a ball that hit his hand as he defended a set-piece and Iran's Sardar Azmoun who headed the ball down to Cedric Soares' arm in the Iran vs Portugal game. The incidents were quite similar to Marcus Rojo's handball in the Argentina vs Nigeria game. But the referees' decisions were opposite, even after consulting with the VAR. Iran was given a penalty while Nigeria was not.

This makes it difficult to win the argument for or against the use of VAR at the moment.

Before the Argentina vs Nigeria game, when Brazil played Costa Rica the referee had pointed to the spot when Neymar went down under a slight nudge. But the referee overturned his own decision after a video review of the incident showed it wasn't a penalty. The right decision was made by so doing.

Conversely, Serbia's Aleksandr Mitrovic was denied a penalty even when he was practically wrestled down by two Switzerland defenders in the box. Sweden were also denied a penalty against Germany as Marcus Berg who was through on goal was fouled by Jerome Boateng.

For every incorrect decision made though, there are several correct ones. Like the Eden Hazard penalty for Belgium against Tunisia, the Iceland penalty vs Nigeria, the Iran equaliser against Spain correctly ruled offside, Harry Kane's third goal for England vs Panama where video footage showed he was played on-side by the heel of a Panama player and so on.

In the final analysis, it is important to note that the use of VAR technology in football is still in its infancy. Like all other things in life, it needs time to develop. But if there is anything we've learnt in Russia, it's that there will always be errors in refereeing decisions no matter what. Technology can only help reduce them.

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Emmanuel Odey

Emmanuel is a freelance journalist who lives and breathes the round leather game. He is a contributor on several platforms. You can follow him on Twitter for more.

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