So near and yet so VAR

The announcement of Arsene Wenger’s imminent departure from Arsenal may have come as a surprise/shock/relief/inevitability – dilute according to taste – but I don’t mind saying that it came as a personal hammer blow to me, writes Liam Mackey.

So near and yet so VAR

Up to yesterday morning, there were the two of us, Frenchman and Irishman, shoulder to shoulder, two great minds as one, striding purposefully into a brave new world. And now, as my old mucker would doubtless put it with that distinctive Gallic shrug of his, there’s just moi.

Yes, I might well be the last person in whole world of football who still thinks that VAR is actually A Good Thing.

In keeping with those progressive views of football which were so influential across the English game, Wenger stood out again last week in his criticism of the Premier League’s decision not to use VAR next season.

“The referee is the referee,” he said. “What you want is to help the referees. Unfortunately, the Premier League has again decided not to go for VAR and personally I believe that is a very, very bad decision.

Overall I believe that with that decision we are behind the rest in the world and that every big game this season has been decided by mistakes that could have been avoided with VAR, especially in the Champions League with Manchester City and Liverpool.

Of course, when Wenger refers to the “rest of the world” I think he really means the Irish Examiner Football Correspondent, but we’ll let that pass in favour of underlining his perfectly correct highlighting of the disallowed goal in the second-leg of Man City-Liverpool Champions League quarter-final.

Here was a cast-iron example of a miscarriage of justice resulting purely from the human eye’s fallibility in the heat of penalty box action. The referee and his assistants might not have seen it clearly but, within seconds of Leroy Sane’s goal being disallowed, television viewers knew for a fact that the ball had come to him from Liverpool’s James Milner, and therefore the City man was not offside when he turned it into the net.

We also know for a fact that Liverpool came back from the concession of an early goal to win 2-1 and 5-1 on aggregate. That might have been a fair reflection of the balance of play over two legs but what we will never know – and were denied the opportunity to find out – is what impact City doubling their advantage through the Sane goal, at a critical moment coming up to the break, might have had on the dynamic of the night and, by extension, the whole tie.

Your correspondent has been banging on about this sort of stuff for a very long time – yes, even before Thierry Henry’s handball in the Stade de France – so long-suffering readers might be wondering why this column has recently turned into something of a VAR-free zone.

The uncomfortable truth, of course, is that the more the technology has come into play worldwide, the more obvious – indeed, headline-grabbing - have become the teething problems inherent in turning concept into reality. And, undeniably, that makes it harder for supporters of VAR to hold the, sometimes wobbly, line.

An especially damaging case in point was the Bundesliga game between Mainz and Freiburg last weekend which, in a slice of bizarre, unwanted history-making, saw a goal scored during half-time.

In the dying seconds of the first half, referee Guido Winkmann turned down a Mainz penalty appeal for an alleged handball in the box and then blew his whistle to send the teams in scoreless at the break.

But, on reviewing the video evidence, the VAR judged that there had indeed been a handball and duly awarded a penalty. Whereupon, the referee called the teams back out, pointed to the spot and – a full six and a half minutes after he’d blown for half-time – Pablo de Blasis was able to put his team one-up before all concerned repaired to the dressing rooms again.

For the record, the same player made it two to seal the win for Mainz in the second half but it’s safe to say that it will be his first which, for all the wrong reasons, will ensure the Argentine of a permanent place in the annals.

For the record too, the video evidence showed that the handball call was correct, meaning Mainz had been wrongly disallowed a penalty in the first place. But the fact that VAR is, far more often than not, showing it is fit for its main purpose – to help the on-field officials get it right – is a point being lost amid recurring controversies arising from its uncertain and occasionally downright wonky application.

It has often been said of the thankless task of refereeing that the men and women in the middle are only doing their job properly when they are anonymous, and the same applies to the VAR which, lest we forget, is a technology operated by humans not the other way around.

Now, the technology’s biggest test to date is looming large, with FIFA announcing just this week that the visual evidence to be utilised by VAR at the World Cup will also be made available on big screens to spectators inside the ground.

Which perhaps is not quite as innovative a breakthrough as it seems, since one of the strongest arguments in favour of VAR from the very outset, is that saturation camera coverage of football matches means armchair viewers thousands of miles from the action have long grown accustomed to benefiting from a more revealing, indeed often definitive, view of contentious incidents than the supporters present in the ground and, more importantly, those on the spot charged with making the big decisions.

UEFA, a bit like a lot of put-upon supporters in Germany and elsewhere, have adopted a wait and see policy, with president Aleksander Ceferin reiterating this week that he feels VAR needs further testing before it might be used in the Champions League. “I have some fear for the World Cup,” he added, “where we will have referees who have never officiated with the VAR.”

It’s a fair point. If VAR’s teething problems are not to degenerate into a series of full-blown toothaches in Russia, FIFA are going to have to quickly find a way to ensure that, as has always been understood and accepted in refereeing, there’s a place too for common-sense in the appliance of science.

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