For referees, and for football as a whole, the world might not quite have tilted on its axis but the tectonic plates surely shifted a little as a result of the first penalty to be awarded on the basis of video replay technology.
The FIFA Club World Cup might not have anything remotely like the cachet of the Champions League in Europe or the Copa Libertadores in South America — let alone its gigantic international namesake — but this year’s semi-finals in Japan, played earlier this week, did put down a marker of potentially historic proportions.
Indeed, it tells you a lot about the status of a tournament which has always been more about optics than reality that the Club World Cup was chosen as the arena for the first preliminary trials of Video Replay Technology, its big moment coming after half an hour in the game between local side Kashima Antlers and Colombian champions Atletico Nacional.
After an inswinging Antlers free kick from the left had been hacked clear by a Nacional defender, play continued towards the other end of the pitch before the ball went out for a throw-in. It was at this point that referee Viktor Kassai, acting on information from Video Assistant Referee Danny Makkelie about a missed incident, called a halt.
Then, after he had described a rectangle in the air with his hands, came the equally unprecedented sight in football of the man in the middle trotting to the sidelines to so that he could review the footage for himself on a pitch-side monitor.
What the Hungarian ref saw now, but which had gone unseen by the officials in real time, was as the free-kick was being floated into the box, Kashima’s Daigo Nishi, in attempting to sneak in at the far post, had been tripped by Atletico’s Orlando Berrio.
With this new information at his disposal, the Hungarian referee promptly pointed to the spot, Shoma Doi successfully converted the penalty and the host club went on to win 3-0.
The following day brought another VRT decision and – since the incident involved none other than Ronaldo – rather more in the way of headlines, as the world player of the year first had a goal disallowed for offside and then, on the basis of the ref consulting the video evidence, had it reinstated as legitimate to give Real Madrid a 2-0 victory over Mexico’s Club America.
So how did the appliance of science go down with some of the humans involved?
Not too well, you’d have to say.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane: “If you ask my impression, it can cause confusion.”
Real midfielder Luka Modric: “I don’t like it very much. My first impression was it’s not a very good system.”
Atletico Nacional boss Reinaldo Rueda: “We were victims of this innovation.”
But, as Zidane also acknowledged, if the powers that be decide VRT is the way to go, then, “we need to get used to it”.
And those in authority were taking a more positive view of the penalty decision with which the technology took its first bow at a FIFA competition.
“The communication between the referee and the video assistant referee was clear, the technology worked well, and ultimately the final decision was taken by the referee, which will always be the case since the VARs are only there to support,” said Massimo Busacca, FIFA’s Head of Refereeing.
FIFA also said according to the experiment protocol drawn up by IFAB — the law-making body responsible for changes in the rules — referees “have the option to confirm or change a decision either by relying solely on information provided by the VAR or by reviewing the footage themselves, especially when it’s a matter of interpretation, rather than a factual decision”.
Former Premier League referee David Elleray, now the Technical Director of IFAB, emphasised that, with further intensive live trials planned in selected leagues around the world, the technology still has to undergo a lengthy process of review before a final decision is made on its implementation in the game.
“We’ll be wanting to look at how often video reviews are used and how often a referee confirms or changes a decision based solely on the information from the Video Assistant Referee or after an on-field review,” he said.
“More importantly, we will want to examine how the VAR system impacts on the behaviour of players, the behaviour of referees, the response of fans in the stadium and the response of people watching on television. So there will be a great deal of information that we’ll need before the IFAB takes a final decision on the implementation of VARs in 2018, or 2019 at the latest.”
That’s plenty of time then for the timid, the intemperate and the techno-teetotalitarians to work themselves up to an apocalyptic pitch about the ‘end of football as we know it, Brian’.
But, in the meantime, here’s a teeny-weeny little morsel of food for thought that the Luddites might wish to chew on: I’ve looked carefully at the slow-motion and freeze-frame footage of the two contentious incidents from the Club World Cup and it’s beyond argument that, yes, the Japanese player was tripped in the box and, no, Ronaldo was not offside.
In other words, the VTR got it right on both counts.
And so what should be a core principle of football, as indeed of all sport — that merit is rewarded and foul play punished — was upheld.
The logic of employing VRT, as I’ve long argued, is sound. Getting the mechanics right is merely the next step.
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