VAR rumbles: Technology wins despite subjective rulings in FIFA World Cup 2018
For all the tactical changes injected into modern football, there remains purity in this arguably the most popular global game. The 90-minute game in two halves has not been touched despite the commercial windfall that would come if split into four quarters like NBA or field hockey.
That is why a suggestion by Sepp Blatter when he was FIFA general secretary to turn throw-ins into kicks from touch was rejected.
But times are changing. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at the World Cup, despite experts and fans being perplexed by some interpretations and decisions, has been largely accepted.
Few were sure how it would impact highly charged World Cup games. After all, until Russia 2018 it was about an incompetent referee or assistant at worst, not taking the odd conspiracy rant into account.
Having hit the final stretch of arguably the best World Cup in the last three decades, VAR has not spoilt the spectacle. Most of the 335 VAR incidents studied in the group stages left us with an ‘I told you so’ than ‘this VAR is killing me’, just like how Roger Federer reacted when HawkEye was introduced in tennis.
VAR has also shown the TV camera work has lived up to the word used to highlight art in sport – imagination. Where it fails is subjectiveness in rulings, highlighted ironically by the clarity of TV footage.
Take one of the biggest VAR moments. During Portugal’s 1-1 draw against a tough Iran, Cristiano Ronaldo was provoked as a defender leaned into him. As the star brushed him aside, the marker fell in a heap clutching his face.
Once referee Enrique Caceres called for VAR, Ronaldo was in trouble. Elbowing meant a straight red, but here the arm brushed Morteza Pouraliganji’s face, but there didn’t seem any intent.
In the end, the yellow card was neither here nor there. It looked a subjective call, going against the thumb rule that technology imposes. You either ignore the challenge, or punish as the offence deserves.
Though VAR has helped the game flow, it is here that it falters. Referees watching in a faraway room and deciding which incident needs review means the system can be questioned.
VAR has got the vote of confidence from Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the referees commission, but the Ronaldo episode left one wondering whether officials do waver. However, the Italian has conceded it is a work in progress.
But the Spain-Russia clash that sent home the 2010 champions did nothing to allay one’s fears. In the dying minutes, Russian defenders wrestled Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique to the ground in the six-yard box as the ball arrived from a set-piece move.
It seemed a clear penalty, but the referee, after VAR use, ruled it out. Spain lost on penalties. Germany defender Jerome Boateng was lucky not to be penalised for a foul in the box against Sweden despite being the last man. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Sweden, who lost after a last-gasp Toni Kroos strike.
VAR though has stopped players from feigning injuries and allowed referees and assistants to let play continue.
Football can dip into cricket, rugby and field hockey to fine-tune VAR.
India, during MS Dhoni’s captaincy, opposed Decision Review System (DRS), arguing it was not ‘100%’. The key issue was the ball-tracking system, which India felt was not fully reliable. They had a point. They are now ready for DRS in bilateral series, but debate over the umpires’ call for marginal leg-before decisions continues.
Cricket’s initial attempt to use the third umpire didn’t work. It was at the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka that ICC introduced a short-lived TV umpire’s input on lbw referrals.
There was two-way communication with the on-field umpire, but the TV umpire could only say if the ball pitched in line or not. That meant Zimbabwe’s Dion Ebrahim was given out though it was clear the ball would have missed the stumps.
A seasoned international umpire was asked the next day how he would have reacted as TV official? “I would have said ‘the ball pitched in line, but’,” he smiled.
Football can borrow from rugby and hockey. Conversation between referee and review official is heard on TV and experts then expand on the ruling. Collina said it would happen at some point in the future.
The interactive aspect of sport – the Formula 1 audio is a prime example – will influence these decisions. However, expenses may bar VAR from being widely used.
Field hockey being very fast requires technological assistance to review decisions. But those reviews have had little drama and have only enhanced the game.
Collina accepted VAR is evolving. Until it becomes an exact science, players could be caught out by changing interpretation from one game to another.
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