The just concluded 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was lauded for so many ground-breaking achievements, and most importantly, “first times” like Croatia’s Mario Mandžukić being the first footballer ever to score an own goal in the final. But curiously it centred, inevitably perhaps, on the controversies of FIFA’s Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology—its first ever usage at the FIFA World Cup—with allegations of it designed to favour some teams over others.
VAR deploys a team of four officials who monitor about 35 broadcast cameras in the stadium for “clear and obvious” errors centred on cases of mistaken identity, penalty incidents, red card offences, and awarding goals. So, a little rumination to analyse a few circumstances surrounding such conspiracies should suffice as I aim to draw a line to them.
In the aforementioned final, for instance, centre referee Néstor Pitana had awarded France a free kick for a blatant Antoine Griezmann dive from which Mario Mandžukić would score his infamous own goal. The incident wasn’t reviewed to the dismay of most viewers as the rules of the technology’s usage stipulate since it resulted in a goal. France’s first goal would account for an astronomical 43% of the 169 goals scored during the tournament resulting from a dead ball situation. The second goal—a debatable penalty call thanks to VAR’s consultancy decision—adjudged Croatia’s Ivan Perišić to have committed an intentional handball. It was downhill from there. Not even Perišić’s pullback sandwiched between the dubious penalty and a quick-fire double from Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé, and later, a Hugo Lloris gaffe would resuscitate the resilience Croatia had shown throughout the competition.
The accusatory tone to the referee’s performance leaned on VAR’s selective bias against Croatia before exploding into perceived influence wielded by France as one of the world’s political superpowers amid nationalistic ulterior motives against a side that had coincidentally thrashed the referee’s nation—Argentina—in the group stage. Also, the accusers laid claim to the importance of the match and the game-changing dynamics of his costly decisions, citing Nigel de Jong’s Kung-Fu-inspired kick on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, which earned him a simple yellow card for his troubles—a decision English referee, Howard Webb would be widely lauded for.
Observing all the crucial decisions involving the deployment of VAR, the parallel draws through disconcerting events from the group stage to the final especially with the “smaller” teams. Morocco had at least 3 plays unbelievably not reviewed against Portugal; Nigeria’s penalty claims against Argentina; Columbia vs England; Iran vs Portugal. Morocco vs Spain? “VAR is bulls**t,” Moroccan Striker, Noureddine “Nordin” Amrabat swore on live television after Iago Aspas’ previously disallowed late goal was reviewed and reversed, earning Spain a 2-2 draw and confirming the North African side’s elimination from the tournament. Nordin’s anger wasn’t unfounded. Morocco had had some legitimate calls for some reviews of their own before the late drama. Of the 20 VAR Reviews from all 64 matches played, most had gone against “smaller” teams!
VAR neither reviews tactical fouls like the traditional shirt pulling, obstruction nor wrongly awarded corner kicks and free kicks. Therefore, it cannot be totally lauded for ‘objectively’ deciding the outcome of a football match, especially when contextually understood that the final decision to review an incident—or not—lies with the centre referee who is, helplessly, burdened with issues of personal bias, subjective analysis, positional limitations at the exact time of play and many other dynamics.
Do not misconstrue my stance on its importance. VAR is a massive technological advancement which fits the timely need, marketing model and production value of such a global game like football. But where “smaller” teams—on the premise of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and previous tournaments—feel aggrieved by a decision for a particular play involving a team to be reviewed while another’s is denied, makes a case for selective bias. In a multicultural, racially-diverse setting like a FIFA World Cup of over 3 billion global viewership, involving 32 national teams of 736 professional footballers with legions of respective national fans, the perception, unavoidably, begins to border on ethnocentrism or even racial prejudice.
Can I state for a fact that VAR is a phoney, selective technological mechanism intended to protect some teams while invariably punishing others who do not speak a certain language, have certain profiled players, or hold certain sporting or political pedigree? The “smaller” teams would feel so, on the back of Russia ’18 and nobody can begrudge them.
VAR must be as inclusive a refereeing tool for both duelling teams and as objective at reviewing incidents to be fully accepted as not a selective tool for ensuring a predetermined outcome.