KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW —- Football’s video referee shared star billing with Cristiano Ronaldo and Arturo Vidal as the Confederations Cup moved up through the gears in Russia.
The warm-up tournament for next year’s World Cup accelerated, after the hosts’ Group A victory over New Zealand on Saturday, with Portugal and Mexico sharing a 2-2 draw before Chile dismissed Cameron 2-0 in the opening Group B tie. Germany wrap up the first matchday against Australia in Sochi.
Kazan and Moscow Spartak saw entertaining weekend duels with debate about the video refereeing experiment sparked in both.
In Kazan a first-half ‘goal’ by Pepe for Portugal was disallowed by American VAR Jair Marrufo because of an undisputed offside in the first phase of the action. No problem there.
However Chile’s clash with Cameroon prompted cautionary comments from both coaches about the pace of experimental implementation.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has made no secret of his expectation to see VARs in action at the World Cup back here in Russia next year.
Pressure on IFAB
But some coaches and officials have expressed private misgivings about the manner in which the law-making International Board risks being bulldozed into approval at next spring’s annual meeting.
Moscow’s incidents provided a cationary sight of clear blue water between the technocrats and the individuals on the pitch – and in the dugouts – at the mercy of this rush to technological justice.
Worldwide experimentation is essential but the roll-out plan needs to ensure players and coaches are comfortable with the VAR before it is imposed on them at the pinnacle of the game i.e. the World Cup.
Moscow’s controversies illustrated the sense of unrest VAR usage can spark among the key actors in the drama, the players and their coaches.
Incident No1, almost on half-time, was referred ‘upstairs’ by Slovene referee Damir Skomina after Arturo Vidal’s pass pierced Cameroon’s back line and Eduardo Vargas accelerated between the defenders to shoot home.
Chile’s celebrations were cut short by Skomina’s ‘screen signal’ and they were furious when VAR official Clement Turpin disallowed the goal so Skomina could order up a free kick for offside instead.
Moments later Skomina blew for halftime and Chile, several of whose players had to be pulled away from him, went in to the dressingroom upset at having their celebratory bubble punctured. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said later that this had an impact on their low-key start to the second half.
Incident No2 occurred in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. Substitute Alexis Sanchez raced clear and had his goal attempt blocked only for Vargas to stab the ball home. Again Skomina called upstairs and this time French official Turpin decided that Sanchez had been onside in breaking forward and the goal should stand.
Now it was the turn of Cameroon’s players to shake their tired heads in disbelief.
Both decisions were extremely tight and depended, unlike automated goal-line technology, on subjective human judgment. This is what fuels the risk of controversy.
FIFA issued a statement later explaining:
“First half: Goal not given due to offside position of the player Eduardo Vargas as judged by video assistance referee. Second half: Goal given as player Alexis Sánchez not in offside position as judged by video assistance referee.”
But football is about not only cold facts but passion, ambition and dreams of glory. This is where FIFA would do well to respect players who are only just starting to grapple with a new complication to an old and once-simple game.
Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said: “The VAR can be very important . . . but if it’s going to happen several times during a match it’s not very pleasant for the players. My own first reaction [on decision No1] was disappointment at conceding a goal but then I saw the ref making the TV sign and I hoped it was offside – which it was so then I was happy.”
Pace of change
No-one, on either side, questioned the value of the concept but the pace and breadth of change is something else.
As Vidal said: “It’s difficult. They explained to us beforehand how it works but in the moment of a game the decision is not so easy to accept.”
Chile coach Pizzi agreed, saying: “This system needs time to get it right. We are still in the testing phase and it is true that feelings can be difficult [to control] because we are used to a different situation in our world of football.
“So we have to wait and see. Maybe after some time it will get better. The first half incident created some distress but then also because we are not used to it.
“I would say that such technology can bring us more justice in football but right now it’s still a little difficult for the players. Even if it’s the right decision it still has an impact on their emotions.
“FIFA has to evaluate this experiment but I also hope they will listen to us before making a decision.”
Confederations Cup so far:
Jun 17 (St Petersburg): Russia 2 (Boxall og 31, Smolov 69), New Zealand 0
Jun 18 (Moscow Spartak): Cameroon 0, Chile 2 (Vidal 81, Vargas 90)
Wed, Jun 21 (Moscow): Russia v Portugal.
Wed, Jun 21 (Sochi): Mexico v New Zealand
Jun 18 (Kazan): Portugal 2 (Quaresma 34, Cedric 86), Mexico 2 (Hernandez 42, Moreno 90).
Today, Jun 19 (Sochi): Australia v Germany.
Jun 22 (St Petersburg): Cameroon v Australia.
Jun 22 (Kazan): Germany v Chile.