On the evening of May 6, 2009, at Stamford Bridge, legendary sides FC Barcelona and Chelsea battled it out to secure a spot in the Champions League final. Chelsea just needed to hold on to their 1-0 aggregate lead in order to prevent Barcelona from reaching the finals.
What happened throughout the match was an absolute mockery of refereeing. Several referee mistakes, like missed handballs and tackles against Chelsea caused Barcelona to score in the dying minutes of the match, proceeding to the finals on away goals. The referee’s lacklustre performance made the world realize that there should be a change, something to help prevent these mistakes.
As the world today becomes more and more technologized, so do sports such as soccer. With the inclusion of goal-line technology back in 2012, the sport is slowly modernizing to keep pace with the rest of the world. But in 2018, the introduction of “Video Assistant Referee,” or “VAR,” proved to be highly controversial.
Video Assistant Referee is a tool used in matches in order to make a game flow more smoothly by avoiding the need to confrontations and long conferences with referees. It also promised to reduce referee error. In every match, there is a set of referees in a room with multiple monitors showing the match feed and footage from multiple different camera angles. On certain calls or plays the referees go straight to the Video Assistant Referees to get their interpretation based on the video. The VAR makes a recommendation to the ref to review specific moments from specific angles. They may recommend a certain call, but the ref makes the final determination.
FIFA says that “The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with sending off or not sending off a player, the award or non-reward of a penalty kick, to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded, and to inform the referee so that the correct player can be disciplined if the wrong player was disciplined beforehand.”
Many have argued that soccer should stick to its roots and remain free of any further technological advances, but others have said that the inclusion of VAR would prove beneficial and potentially make calling the game more straightforward. In the years since its introduction, VAR has caught mistakes made by both players and referees. However, many correct calls by VAR aren’t properly looked at or followed. Referees make the wrong decisions at times, which could prove to be crucial to the outcome of a match.
When VAR was introduced, it was decided that four different types of calls could be reviewed: goals to see whether a violation such as an offside or foul occurred during the play, penalty decisions, direct red card decisions and mistaken identity (wrong player getting carded) when a yellow or red card has been given. Reasonably speaking, this makes good use of the system, as it promises to clear the game of any misjudgement or wrongdoing.
That has not happened, however. Instead, we have seen that referees take VAR decisions with a grain of salt. For example, during the AC Milan vs Juventus game on April 6th, there were many instances where VAR shows a clear foul, but the referee didn’t accept that decision and awarded the call the other way. In the 35th minute, Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu crosses the ball into the Juventus box, where Alex Sandro, one of Juve’s star defenders, struck the ball with his arm, which should be called as a penalty. The referee went to the sideline to review the VAR footage and decision and decreed there was no penalty, which caused a huge reaction from the media. This wasn’t the first time that AC Milan has been robbed of a big call from the referee’s decision mishap and definitely not the first time a referee made a wrong call.
Then, in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, during the 83rd minute playing against Iran, Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo clearly elbowed Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji, an offence that would be a straight red card. After the referee reviewed the VAR video, he decided to only award Ronaldo with a yellow card. Obviously, it caused a stir with the Iranian sideline, especially with their manager, Carlos Queiroz. “The rules don’t say if it is Messi or Ronaldo it is only a little bit of an elbow. It is a red card. What is the difference between an elbow by Cristiano Ronaldo and everyone else? Is his a half elbow?” Queiroz said quite angrily.
Throughout the history of the sport, referee error and controversy has been well-documented. Taking a look back to the 2002 World Cup, the highlight of the tournament was the topic of referees. During the South Korea vs. Italy matchup in the round of 16, there were many fouls that were committed, as well as goals scored by Italy that were unfairly called off. The match was thrown to South Korea.
The referee for that match and for other controversial games during that tournament, Byron Moreno, was scrutinized beyond belief, with over 400,000 complaints being made towards FIFA. He is known as one of the most controversial and corrupt referees that soccer has ever seen. In 2010, after a multitude of bans made by FIFA and the Ecuadorian referee authorities, he was caught at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York smuggling over 13 pounds of heroin in his underwear. He was sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison. After 26 months, he was sent back to Ecuador.
There’s a huge “grey area” revolving around the question of why are referees still avoiding the correct calls. Fans and analysts speculate about whether it’s due to referee error, certain people rigging the results, or how in Italian soccer, the “mafia” rig results in favour of a certain team. Perhaps it is too much to expect that a world-renowned sport with as much riding on it as soccer, could possibly be free of corruption or controversy. We might just watch the game and not pick everything wrong, but rather sit back, relax and enjoy it. On the other hand, second guessing the referees is also part of the game. And even with VAR, that aspect is not changing.