Part two of Michael Salter’s World Cup reflections…


VAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

An innovation as fundamental as VAR was bound to create some controversy, but in the end there was both good and bad news. The good news was that the players appeared to accept the video verdicts without the barrage of spluttering indignation that was expected in some quarters. The bad news, sadly, is that the technology was used in a rather ham-fisted manner, and there could be trouble on the horizon.

We must start, inevitably, with the penalty awarded to France for Ivan Perisic’s handball in the final. No-one could have envied Nestor Pitana at that moment, because even if he had personally believed that the handling was unintentional (and we must never forget, if a penalty is to be given, it must be – the wording of Law 12 is quite clear), to be consistent with the earlier decisions in the tournament, he had to give it.

In the ITV studio afterwards, Slaven Bilic, obviously disappointed but admirably impartial, rightly drew attention to the penalty awarded to Australia against Denmark. It was a similar situation: Yussuf Poulsen was in the midst of a jump when his arm made contact with Matt Leckie’s header, and it is a basic fact of the human condition: when we jump with the intention of gaining proper elevation, we raise our arms.

Australia certainly didn’t deserve to lose that game. But I’m sorry, they didn’t deserve their goal either. In my view, that was nothing like a penalty.

And there were other examples in the course of the event: Iran’s late goal against Portugal was another, and once again, although Iran certainly deserved something out of that game, the goal shouldn’t have come in that way.

In the final, Perisic was, ironically, trying to do the right thing. Although airborne, he was actually trying to get his arms out of the way, bringing them down by his sides to reduce the risk of an accidental handball. In any event, the possibility that the handling was intentional is, let us just say, remote.

One worry to arise from this is that players will start attempting to win such penalties from open play as well. I will always remember Roberto Baggio’s clever chip into an opponent’s outstretched arm to win Italy a penalty (and an undeserved draw) against Chile in a first-round match from the 1998 World Cup. It was quite deliberate, and it conned the referee. But now that VAR is around, and now that pretty much any handball seems to be punishable, will that become a trend?

And there were other problems. France’s penalty against Australia showed exactly why VAR should not be used in such cases. After viewing the incident from about five different angles, the TV commentators still couldn’t tell whether Josh Risdon had touched the ball. How could this be considered a “clear and obvious error”? Those of us who believed that video technology should only have been used for crystal-clear cases of positioning, including goal-line incidents, felt somewhat vindicated.

And yet there was one definite positive outcome from the introduction of VAR: defenders (and to a small extent, attackers) were far more careful about rough handling of their opponents in the box. Of course, there is a malign corollary here, that teams might end up relying even more heavily on set-pieces. But this is a small price to pay, in my view, for a diminution of the festival of shirt-pulling, shoving and jabbing that has become so tediously familiar at set-pieces.

BUT THEY STILL MISSED…

One case for which the eyes of the referee and his assistants are plainly sufficient is that of penalties themselves. But here again…the officials came up short, as they have done so often in the past.

It is the most common unpunished offence in football, and yet it is widely, repeatedly, farcically ignored. At Russia 2018, goalkeepers again felt at perfect liberty to stroll off their lines at penalty kicks. And the officials on the goal-line, for whom watching for encroachment is their sole duty, turned a completely blind eye.

It has been happening for as long as I can remember; to anyone who doubts that it is a problem, particularly at shootouts, I gleefully refer them to the European U-21 final of 2002, and Petr Cech’s “performance” in the Czech goal, particularly at the last kick. (It’s on YouTube, check (Cech?) it out. You will be amazed.)

In Russia, it happened often, but the most blatant case was in the Croatia v. Russia shootout from the quarter-finals. If you can find it, look at Mario Fernandes’ kick, and look at where Danijel Subasic is at the moment of contact. How can officials miss something like that, unless they are not even looking for it in the first place?

In tournaments where a good number of games are inevitably going to be decided on penalties, this long-ignored problem needs to be addressed. And there was no better place to address it than football’s biggest event. Sadly, the opportunity was missed once again.

– Michael Salter