France vs Croatia: Should VAR Have Won the Man of the Match at the World Cup Final?


France vs Croatia: Should VAR Have Won the Man of the Match at the World Cup Final?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

The score was 1-1. The final between France and Croatia was turning out to be a nail-biter, an own goal followed by a wonder goal, keeping up with the reputation of it being an wild World Cup. One wouldn’t expect anything less in Putin’s Russia.

After Mario Mandžukić headed the ball into his own net, the Croatians hit back with a thumping strike from Ivan Perišić from the edge of the box. But happiness turned into despair for Perišić moments later as Antoine Griezmann’s corner on the other side of the pitch struck the Inter Milan midfielder on his arms as he struggled to clear the ball.

The referee had missed it, and it seemed like play would continue. It would have, in any World Cup from 1930 to 2014, for the referee had only one view of the action and if you missed it in the moment, you have missed it forever. However, this World Cup will go down in history. The referee had a friend in technology who didn’t miss anything. VAR was like a God and it was time for intervention.

The French players surrounded the referee like pedestrians on Indian roads after an accident and the Argentinian official started to whisper into his tiny microphone, communicating with the tech nerds from the VAR room. He made the signal with his hands which we’re all too familiar with from the game of cricket – VAR was to play a part in the biggest game of the tournament. It had knocked Germany out in the group stages, proving to be decisive in big moments. What was going to happen next?

As footage rolled on from different angles, Croatian fans had their hearts in their mouth. The ball had definitely struck his arm, but was it intentional? How would the referee interpret it? Néstor Pitana was more under more pressure than the kid who has to make it to the DU cut-off list. It seemed like he had made a decision and as he walked away, he decided to have another look, just to be sure. It wasn’t merely the players who were feeling the heat in Moscow.  

In that moment, something remarkable had just happened. The referee got multiple views of an action he had missed. On watching it over and over again, he could make a “better”decision. It had never happened  in a World Cup final before.

The ball didn’t have any significant deflection, and it directly hit Perišić’s arm, which was away from his body and slightly in the air. The rules of the game were clear. The referee pointed to the penalty spot. It was a big moment in a final. Griezmann scored from the spot and the French ran riot with a 4-2 victory. VAR had its say in the World Cup final in its introductory year.  

Like it or hate it, this is the time for VAR.

Remember that time in college when you thought letting your jeans slide under your chappals was cool? Don’t you wish you could review that decision? Or the time you decided to pursue engineering, which crushed your childhood dream of becoming a musician? Rahul Gandhi probably wishes he could review every single word that comes out of his mouth. People make mistakes, and to be able to reflect on them and correct ourselves is an underappreciated luxury.

Until a few years back, football referees never enjoyed this luxury. The football pitch was like North Korea and the referee was its Kim Jong-un. His decision was final, for better or worse. If he accidentally booked the wrong player, that’s how it would stay forever. Would Maradona have been the legend he is, without the famous 1986 “Hand of God” goal as part of his legacy? While Argentina won the quarter-final, and the World Cup, their opponent in that fateful game, England, was unfairly knocked out. They haven’t won a tournament since. This is something VAR could have helped with, and perhaps football history would have looked different today.

In that sense, being a football referee is like being a DU aspirant – no matter how hard you try, it is never going to be enough. Nobody is going to talk about the nine out of ten decisions you got right, but the one you missed in that split second. Like the time Frank Lampard was denied a goal against Germany in 2010 or Carlos Galo’s rugby tackle on Bruno Bellone in the 1986 World Cup that didn’t invite the referee’s wrath.

At the 2014 World Cup, the referee was given a friend in goal line technology. It’s resounding success upon implementation caused tech nerds around the world to have a collective orgasm. The franchise has been extended and video assistant referee (VAR) made its debut at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. What’s next, the technophobes are asking, AI to replace players, referees, and fans by 2026?

To say VAR has divided the footballing world would be an understatement. It has received more hate from all quarters than the BMC gets from Mumbaikars. Football pundit Gary Neville insinuated that VAR isn’t “fit for the purpose”, Iran manager Carlos Queiroz suggested it is “harming the prestige of the game”, Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat called it “bullshit”, and Twitter declared that “VAR is a joke”.

VAR will keep getting better as technology and the game keeps evolving.

Of course, VAR is not perfect. Perhaps it can never be, because it involves human interpretation at some level. Whether it’s a handball in the penalty box or a KJo dance at Sonam Kapoor’s wedding, beauty – and guilt – lie in the eyes of the beholder. Even after tech nerds from the control room guide us through 33 different camera angles, different referees might perceive the same footage differently.

VAR will keep getting better as technology and the game keeps evolving. Barely 20 years back, we had to wait for the orange light on our Kodak camera to blink before clicking a photo but we can now take 30 selfies a second. VAR – even in its existing state – has gotten it right most of the time, as Russia 2018 broke the record for most penalties awarded in the group stages of a World Cup. On at least three occasions, VAR was used to check if a goal has been scored – Diego Costa for Spain versus Portugal (given), Saeid Ezatolahi for Iran v Spain (ruled out), Aspas for Argentina versus Morocco (given) – and a correct decision was taken. For a technology that can’t be perfect, that’s all you can ask for… to get it right most of the time.

However, we must not forget the purpose of this exercise: to serve justice. When the official strides off for what feels like 400 years, and the players on the pitch are standing around with the same expression of a below-average student awaiting his SSC results, “Chutiye ref ne game bigaad diya,” should not be the takeaway for the fan. If it takes a minute, or two, or five, to take a correct call, the pain is worth suffering.

That’s what all of this is about, to ensure that the fair thing is done; for fans, players, and countries that have a lot invested in this game. Millions tune in to their TV sets every night at the cost of falling asleep on their work desk the following day, thousands flock the stadiums with lifesize cutouts of missing friends, Neymar and Pogba have special haircuts; that’s how much all of this matters.

So, we should say yes to VAR. At least give it a chance. We can rectify the niggles, have faster turnaround times, and improve the rules as we use it more often. It’s like having sex, we’ll get better at it the more we do it.

Besides, as a wise soul once put it, “Everything is fair in love and VAR.”