Muscat: A storm of controversy has engulfed the World Cup due to the unprecedented influence of the new Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR) system. Fans watching in stadiums across Russia and at home have been left perplexed by the multiple penalties awarded by the system and the many fouls missed by it, both of which have helped completely change the outcome of nearly every World Cup group this year.
This year's World Cup has already seen more penalties awarded in the first round than in the entirety of the 2014 edition.
VAR causes uproar
While VAR has no doubt caused considerable controversy in each group, it is Group B that the system caused the greatest uproar in.
During the last matches of the group, heading into stoppage time Spain were losing to Morocco 2-1 and Portugal led 1-0 against Iran. Portugal was leading the Group until VAR intervened twice in both games to significantly change the landscape of the upcoming knockout stages.
Iago Aspas had a goal incorrectly ruled for offside while Iran had their appeals for a penalty turned away. Both decisions were later reviewed and were overturned, shocking pundits and football fans around the world.
Former England striker Gary Linker perfectly captured the mood of fans when he tweeted, "Iran get a ludicrous VAR penalty as Spain get given a VAR goal. Mad."
Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty awarded by VAR in the 50th minute, before receiving a yellow card after elbowing Iranian defender Alireza Beinranvand in the face during an off-the-ball clash. It was the second of those decisions that caused the greatest uproar, with Ronaldo only getting a yellow for what could have easily been a red card offence.
Liverpool midfielder James Milner offered his take, "Thoughts on #VAR anyone? Absolute shambles for me."
With Spain topping the group, they will go on to face hosts Russia in the knockout rounds while Portugal will play Uruguay, the latter now having a much more difficult route to the final. While Uruguay vs. Russia avoided being drawn into the VAR controversy, Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt was not so straight forward. The Saudis were given two penalties in the first halves’ stoppage time, with both decisions proving highly contentious.
‘VAR is very useful’
However, there are a few who are all praises for the system.
Speaking to the Times of Oman, Muscat Football Academy General Manager Chuck Martini said, "VAR is very useful, as long as it’s being used in the right way. I don't want to see everything being pointed to the screen and checked out for every incident. I do believe inside the penalty areas yes it matters. A lot of penalties and goals have been awarded using this new device and hopefully it will also be added to the other football world cups in the future.
“I feel it was something in the coming since a long time. Several managers have won or lost leagues because of the lack of such a review system in place. I remember, back when I was managing a playoff final, I was denied a blatant penalty that the referee called in our favour, only to have it overruled by the linesman.”
Chuck Martini added, "Had we had this system in place, my team would have gotten promoted. Instead, they stayed in the same division and the rest is history. Now that club is way down the leagues but that playoff final could have been a platform for them to go on too much greater heights. So yes, I think it is a big plus that will benefit football.
"Championships have been won or lost based on refereeing decisions. And with VAR, it could perhaps make things easier for a referee because, if he does make a decision that is not right, he will be able to rectify it quickly. At the end of the day, no referee would want to hand a championship or a vital game to a team due to a wrong decision on their part"
But he adds, “Despite its advantages, I want it to be used less frequent, we cannot keep stopping and starting the game all the time. Yes, it’s a big plus, big thumbs up from me because I think it’s something that will definitely benefit football."
Gerald Lami, Senior Coach at the Muscat-based Juventus Football Academy, said, "This debate whether VAR is good or bad for football was eventually going to present itself for discussion. It's been tested in certain leagues in Europe and there has been mixed reviews. However fans are mostly steering away from the thought of VAR being permanently part of football.”
Lami added, “In my opinion it hasn't gone down well in this World Cup. With such a huge event more tests should have been done with VAR in domestic leagues across the world. There is a positive and a negative side to everything, so I can't say it's all been bad. There have been decisions that VAR has been in favour of some teams, but it still comes down to a human interpretation. For me it slows down the game and there should be a limit on how many times a team can use VAR.
"With that said, I think there's no harm in using it to an extent but it shouldn’t take away the focus from the game. I believe if it's going to be part of football then we should use it in all games not just the big ones."
Fans in Oman had a different take on the controversial system.
Abdullah, a football fan from Sur, said, "Throughout the World Cup we have seen VAR decisions favouring big teams. We have seen at least 20 penalties and there are still 23 matches left. That's more than the number in the 1990, 1998 and 2002 tournaments. Last World Cup, there were only 14.
"Some of the decisions, especially against small teams from Africa and Asia don't make sense to me. Even some smaller European teams, like Serbia and Sweden, have been denied clear penalties. It is hard to understand why, especially when with the VAR system you have five guys in a room watching from different angles."
Here's a look at some of the major VAR-related decisions in this year's World Cup.
Portugal vs. Iran: 50th minute
Cristiano Ronaldo speeds into the box only to be barrelled down by Iranian defender Ezatolahi. The referee initially waves it away before consulting VAR and awarding the penalty. Contact between Ronaldo and Ezatolahi was clear, making it an obvious example of VAR getting a decision right.
Portugal vs. Iran, 81st minute, Ronaldo gets away with an elbow on Pouraliganji.
An off the ball incident between Ronaldo and Iranian defender Morteza Pouraliganji left the Asian team's bench furiously appealing for a red card. The Portuguese striker appeared to aim a sly elbow in the defender's face. The Iranian appeals were initially waved away before VAR was consulted, resulting in a yellow card for the Portuguese captain, a decision that left Iran's coach furious.
“An elbow is a red card. The rules do not say what if it is Ronaldo or Messi. It is a red card. The decisions must be clear,” Carlos Queiroz said.
“Five guys sitting upstairs and they don’t see an elbow. Give me a break. VAR gives no room for human mistakes. Before we accepted human mistakes as part of the game. The refs on the pitch are like Pilate washing their hands,” he said, referencing the biblical figure Pontius Pilate.
Portugal vs. Iran: Stoppage time
Iran was awarded a penalty in stoppage time after a headed ball hit the arm of a Portuguese defender.
According to FIFA's 'Laws of the Game', Law 12 states that a free-kick or penalty will be awarded if a player "handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)". The second penalty was clearly not the case.
Spain vs. Morocco, Stoppage time
Iago Aspas had a goal disallowed for offside. The goal was given after VAR was consulted; clearly showing the Spanish had in fact been onside.
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt, 41st Minute
The Saudis were awarded a penalty after a cross from Al Sharmani hit Egyptian captain Ahmed Fathi's arm. The penalty was given, and subsequ ently saved by Egyptian Keeper Essam El Hadary.
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt, 45th minute
The Saudis were given yet another penalty after a small tug on the shirt of Muwallad sends the Saudi player tumbling to the ground. After reviewing VAR, the penalty was given alongside a harsh yellow card for Egyptian defender Gabr.
Serbia vs. Switzerland, 66th minute
Two Swiss defenders, Lichtsteiner and Schaer, hold Serbian striker Mitrovic down while he attempts to win a header in the box. While VAR was not consulted and no penalty given, this remains one of the most hotly contested incidents in this year's World Cup.
Sweden vs. Germany, 12th minute
The referee waved play on after Sweden's Marcus Berg appeared to be toppled by Jerome Boateng in the box. After consulting VAR, the referee refuses to award Sweden a penalty.
As the examples above illustrate, VAR has had a controversial start in world football with opinions divided on whether it is helping improve the game. What is certain, however, is that it is here to stay.