FIFA’s VAR Problem
Let’s talk World Cup.
It seems like stories and narratives to follow at this spectacular competition are endless From Lionel Messi carrying the weight of 40 million Argentinians on his back to Russia’s national team being competitive despite the label of underdogs they were given. Or plucky Iceland who, despite having a population smaller than Corpus Christi TX, made it past qualifying rounds to go on and tie mighty Argentina. But while all of this drama will eventually be played out on the field, there’s a lot going on under the surface this year. Unlike the drama on the field, these problems may take a while to sort out and they all start with three letters: VAR
What is VAR?
VAR, or Video Assistant Referee, is a system first used in the MLS back in 2016 and works like an instant replay. Three referees in a room that has monitors wall to wall sit there and analyze what happens on the field. Unlike in American sports, these reviews can only be triggered by referees on the field or by the VAR referees suggesting a review. Even then VAR can only be used to can only be used to reverse penalties, red cards(as well as a mistaken identity in who gets a card), the goal and the buildup to the goal. All of this seems reasonable, the MLB and NFL have had systems like this in place for years and it’s generally been positive. Despite this being the first year the replay system would be used on soccers largest stage, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was fairly confident the tournament would benefit from it.
Let’s just say that there are plenty of people who disagree right now.
The Gaffes Of VAR at the World Cup
USA TODAY Sports looked at 12 on-field decisions that they considered a borderline call. These 50/50 sort of calls are the exact kind of plays you want VAR for, but they found that just half were widely accepted as correct. Now it’s important to remember that international soccer can be incredibly divisive. International soccer fans are just as susceptible to seeing plays through the bias of their team. And this analysis is far from scientific or definite but coin flip odds aren’t an improvement. There’s even a pretty straightforward argument for these changes achieving these things in a way that hurts the game.
The Iran vs. Portugal game was a lot more exciting than anyone thought it would be and VAR was right smack in the middle of it. It was used to award Cristiano Ronaldo a penalty in the 53rd minute(that he missed) but it’s most telling use near the end of the game. In the 88th minute, Saad Samir jumps up for a header in the box, the ball ricochets off his head and into Bruno Alves’ arm. Immediately, Iranian players began yelling and pointing at their arms towards the on-field referee: the universal sign for handball. Three minutes of time passes before Iran is awarded a penalty kick, and yes, the amount of time that VAR sapped away here is deplorable. The far worse spoke to this wheel is the outright denigrating of the rules that VAR is making acceptable. From page 113 of the FIFA rulebook, “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm”. Deliberate is a really important word there. Honestly, watch the video(here), could anyone say that Alves made a deliberate attempt to make contact with the ball? To be clear the first stipulation in the handball rule is to look at “the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)”. From where I sit, it just seems impossible to say Alves moved his hand towards the ball but that’s one of the problems with VAR. It’s a lot easier to assign intention and agency in something when seen through the lens of slo-mo. Still, you’d imagine that adding three more referees into the mix that get to sit back and watch the big plays on repeat would get the job right. That’s part of the problem though, so often they still miss some pretty big fouls.
Failing To Catch An Elbow
Egregious fouls being missed was supposed to be one of the things that VAR fixed, but later in that same match between Iran and Portugal, replays failed again. In the 82nd minute while nowhere near the ball, Cristiano Ronaldo throws an elbow that lands square in Morteza Pouraliganji chest. On the video, Ronaldo’s move doesn’t look like it was intentional or meant to harm, but it’s more of a judo chop than anything else. After a VAR review, that took much to long, Ronaldo is given a yellow card for the incident. Now, this might seem reasonable but it’s not an honest upkeep of the rules as written. To quote the Iranian manager after the match, “Elbow is a red card in the rules, the rules don’t say if it’s Messi or Ronaldo”. Nor do the rules specify that elbows can be used if the intent isn’t to hurt or if it’s a “hard challenge”.
That’s the problem with VAR in right now: it’s only used to uphold certain rules at certain times. Even the rules that it’s used to uphold are often not upheld in their original meaning, or in the spirit that they were meant. FIFA has added more dead time into games without actually solving the issue of bad calls based on bad readings of the rules affecting the game in huge ways. And sadly, there’s not a way out of this VAR crisis for the 2018 World Cup. For now, we’ll all just have to live with the frustration and continue to shout….