As VAR as the eye can see

BIG CALL: PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe was deemed to have handled the ball after this incident was reviewed by VAR during the Champions League last-16 clash with Manchester United at Parc des Princes last Wednesday. Picture: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty

Hey, remember in the old days when the catastrophists were warning that VAR would be the Y2K of football, not just ruining the game as a spectacle but worse — far, far worse — doing away with all those ‘talking points’ so beloved of pundits, whether in a studio or on a bar stool? Now we know different.

Yesterday morning, Virgin Media Sports flagged up a big week of sport on the channel by bringing Niall Quinn, Kevin Kilbane, AP McCoy, and Matt Williams to a Dublin hotel for a chinwag with the media. And while, admittedly, there was a bit of talk about Cheltenham and the Six Nations and other such minor considerations, the Video Assistant Referee was always going to be up for review after the dramatic week that was in the Champions League.

Of course, Kevin Kilbane has more reason than most to rue the days when VAR was not around to — according to taste — clarify, torment, or entertain, he being one of the visiting players left fuming and broken-hearted in the Stade de France on that infamous night in 2009 when Thierry Henry’s ‘Hand Of Gaul’ helped ensure that Ireland would not be going to the World Cup.

“That’s 10 years ago now, Jesus Christ, and we were talking even then that video replay needed to come in,” he told me. “We all saw what happened and it could have been sorted in five seconds, it wouldn’t have been a problem. And there’s no doubt that the handball was a game-changing situation, in terms of the swing of that game and the momentum we had that evening. We just felt at the time that it was a travesty.

“OK, there are a lot of worse things that could happen but the chance to go to another World Cup would have meant so much to us. That’s why it felt like a disaster at the time. I remember after the game saying to the media that VAR had to come in after that type of incident because what was at stake meant so much to the players, to the manager, to the media and to the supporters. So, even now, yeah, I do reflect on it and think, ‘what if?’.

“We know from this week VAR can get things wrong but, ultimately, I still have to be in favour of it if it means, more times than not, a huge game isn’t going to be decided by a refereeing decision that’s wrong.”

Arsenal-supporting AP McCoy is of a broadly similar view.

“I think it has a place in football but it still all comes down to opinions,” he said. “After the PSG-Man United game, I read where all the referees said it was definitely a penalty and all the ex-footballers said it definitely wasn’t a penalty. Did I think it was a penalty? No, I didn’t. He (Presnel Kimpembe) jumped and he had his back turned but what they said was he made himself bigger. So how do you solve that argument? But I do think, generally, that VAR is good because football is a huge sport and it involves huge calls which it’s not fair to put on one person.”

Niall Quinn’s take on it is that even the theoretically all-seeing eye of the camera can have a blind spot.

“VAR is brilliant — except for handball!” he said. “It doesn’t prove anything to me in handball because even after we’ve seen replays we’re still asking was it or wasn’t it? The first one we dealt with in the studio since the European matches started again was Otamendi in the Man City-Schalke game. He was about seven yards away, he could easily have got out of the way but he went like that with his hand and as soon as you saw it you knew he meant it. You didn’t even need the VAR to see it was a penalty. But when I saw the Man United-PSG one this week, all I could think was: how could they say that was definitely a penalty? You can see the trips and for offside you can see the lines but when it comes to handball you’re still interpreting. So VAR is great but it hasn’t conquered handball in my eyes.”

Would he have liked VAR to have been around in his own playing days?

“Yeah, I would. I got a lot of rough treatment that went unpunished. But then I got away with a few as well (laughs). I had a good habit of nudging people at the right time. It was something I learned as my career went on. You could give yourself an advantage by reading the flight of a ball. Long before it got to me, I’d got my half a yard. I now think, looking back, I might have been stopped from doing that had VAR come in.”

Quinn reckons that the kind of long delays which were a feature of the deployment of VAR in both the PSG-Man Utd and Real Madrid-Ajax games are probably more of an issue for spectators than players.

“That was always Sepp Blatter’s point when he was saying, ‘no, we can’t have it’, that it would upset the flow. But then, time-wasting goes on anyway, it’s not as if that’s new to the game. And I know when I was a player — maybe because I used to have to go back for all the corners and thrown-ins and then get upfront again — I’d be delighted with the rest for a couple of minutes or whatever time it takes. Whatever about as a spectacle, I think players wouldn’t worry too much about that.”

Quinn is dubious, however, about the merit of rule changes designed to eliminate the concept of ‘accidental’ handball from the game.

“You could do that but there could be some awfully tough cases out of that. All through my career there was handball and accidental handball but if they’re going to say both are handball now, you’ll see a few hard luck stories. And actually I think the PSG one was a hard luck story because I think that ball was going 20 foot over the bar.”

But there’s something else to consider, said I: what was your man doing turning his back on a shot in the first place?

“That’s a fair point,” said Niall with a smile. “You wouldn’t have seen Tony Adams doing that.”

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