Is VAR ready for the Champions League?
Beginning with the Round of 16 matches, video assistant referees are part and parcel of Champions League officiating. The technology was applied in Rome and Amsterdam. The decision at the Stadio Olimpico was straightforward. Not so at the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
Overruling Nicolas Tagliafico's first-half goal for Ajax against Real Madrid sparked a heated debate. No one disputes that an offside Dusan Tadic interfered with Thibaut Courtois' ability to recover from the error he made that led to the goal. The problem is an emotional one. We talk so often about a deserved lead or result. Ajax bossed the first half of the match. They deserved a goal. VAR took it away. In the cold, emotionless world of officiating, it was the correct call. In the passionate universe that is football, it was horribly wrong.
Destroying positive football isn't why anyone wanted video technology added to the referee's tool kit. Unfortunately, it was the first gift received. UEFA and other governing bodies will repeatedly have to defend correct calls as much as they once defended bad ones.
Other pitfalls lie in wait. Will referees be tempted to consult VAR in situations where it isn't mandated? Will they dither overly long on replays to determine the correct call when the process is meant to overturn clear, obvious errors?
It must be remembered as well that this is not goalline technology. In those moments, an electronic device makes the decision. With VAR, it's human beings. There will be errors.
At the World Cup, different referees in separate matches reviewed similar handball complaints in the box. In both cases, commentators felt the plays were clearly ball to hand with the defender unable to avoid contact. Slow motion, analysts noted, made every handball look intentional whereas real-time tended to be more telling about a player's ability to react. In the first match, the referee deliberated for minutes, repeatedly viewing slow-motion replays, then awarded a penalty. In the second, the referee, peered at the screen for less than ten seconds before waving the claim off. Because humans are at the heart of the system, it will never be perfect.
On the positive side for the Champions League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga all use VAR. Those leagues can provide experienced officials. On the negative side, the Premier League does not. Michael Oliver could have used VAR last season when Gianluigi got up close and personal in expressing his derision for the penalty decision at the death that handed Real Madrid victory in their quarterfinal tie last season. He and his Premier League colleagues can only draw on classroom experience or the odd FA Cup match when officiating crucial Champions League contests. Until the league stops dragging its heels over VAR, English referees may find their way to major tournaments blocked, as occurred in the World Cup in Russia.
Another positive from UEFA is the instruction to issue yellow cards to players who make the rectangular gesture to call for video review. It's bad enough that some teams hunt the referee in packs to intimidate him into booking another opponent. The game doesn't need to be further delayed by needless requests for video review from players. The official in the booth can intervene at any time if needed.
VAR promises to be a process with a painful evolution, especially when it displeases fans by making the right calls. Artificial intelligence is becoming more capable with each passing day. If the day ever dawns when machines become self-aware, you can bet they will ask the same question many humans do. Why would anyone ever want to be a referee?