Saeid Ezatolahi wheeled away in delight. He would soon be joined by his teammates on the pitch and those still wearing bibs who’d occupied the dugout. The Rostov midfielder thought he had just dragged Iran level against Spain, taking them one step closer to the last-16, in their Group B clash.
Ezatolahi offered a prayer and kissed the turf. But his moment was to turn sour. Referee Andres Cunha placed his hand in the air, then his finger to his ear, listening intently. Spanish players surrounded the Uruguayan official claiming for a handball – claiming for anything to spare their blushes.
Two minutes passed, which must have felt like an age to those in white, eventually the ref waved the goal off as Ezatolahi had drifted half a yard offside after the ball had taken a flick off an Iranian head before he met it to beat David De Gea.
Spain retained their slender advantage and the landscape of the group was changed in the 2010 World Champion’s favour, whereas moments earlier it had shifted to one were Fernando Hierro’s side would have needed to get something from Morocco in their last group game – no gimme after their valiant showing against Portugal earlier in the day.
The Video Assistant Referee is yet to appease many watching the World Cup, but there is evidence that the highly controversial technology is working. Antoine Griezmann created a small part of history against Australia when he scored the first goal after a VAR decision. The Atletico forward was challenged by Josh Risdon. Fittingly, it was Cunha who also officiated that match. He allowed play to go on for a short while before receiving word that the challenge of the long time Barcelona target needed to be reviewed. A penalty was given. Girezmann dispatched it comfortably.
Of course, VAR is still open to ones interpretation of “clear and obvious”, Phil Neville and Jermaine Jenas railed against the technology on the BBC after the Group C clash – insisting the officials had still come to the wrong conclusion.
“I Don’t like VAR, I haven’t don’t from day one.” Said England Women manager Neville. “It has to be clear and obvious. We have three different opinions in the studio so it’s not clear.”
Former England international Jenas added: “That is one that shouldn’t even be sent for review. The referee made his decision by not giving the penalty. It was not a clear and obvious mistake. That’s where VAR can come off on the wrong side of things.”
Indeed, Jenas and Neville are correct, the judgement is still made by humans – prone to error even after looking at an incident more than once and at several angles. The system is not definitive like goal-line technology. It’s still subjective, still leaving the door ajar for people to interpret it however they like.
But it has received praise from a manager at the tournament, a manger whose side were on the wrong end of a VAR decision. South Korea played Sweden in their opening Group F contest.
Viktor Claesson went down under a challenge from Kim Min-woo. Referee Joel Aguilar initially allowed play to run, with South Korea on a promising counter attack, after being consulted by those in the VAR booth the Salvadoran official pointed to the spot and Andreas Granqvist converted the penalty.
Afterwards, South Korea coach Shin Tae-yong said: “We could say it was regrettable, but he was tackled between his legs. We do agree that it was a good call.” Tae-yong’s dignified response should be appreciated when it would have been easier to jump on the bandwagon and insist that VAR has no place in football.
The resistance VAR has been met with is of no surprise. Football was equally as reticent to fully embrace goal-line technology when the original ideas were pitched: would it slow the game down? Would it take away from that moment of spontaneity from the goal scoring team? Regardless of the questions, one overarching question remained: Do we want the decision to be correct? Ultimately, the answer is “yes”.
Is VAR perfect? Absolutely not. But is it improving and will it improve in the future? Undoubtedly. Marcus Rashford said as much after England’s 2-1 triumph over Tunisia in which Harry Kane was subject to some rough treatment in the penalty area. The Tottenham striker received little sympathy from the officials and no action was taken against the Tunisians grappling with the England captain.
“There are certainly some decisions where they have to at least check to see if it is a penalty or not.” Said the Manchester United forward,
“It does need improving and I think it will improve over time. The idea of bringing VAR into the game is spot on but there is something to improve on.”
Rashford remains openminded about the system, as should we all. Football detests patience with a passion, in a microwave existence football has forgotten the delights of slow cooking their innovations.
Like managers, players and executives, the VAR system needs time to succeed.