Editorial

VARs are indeed a forward step for football

Saturday, January 13, 2018

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An article in the UK Guardian newspaper last November explaining the video assistant referees (VAR) system being used in football highlighted an interesting and almost amusing position held by some of the sport's decision-makers.

Football, they insisted, “must forever retain its treasured sense of unfairness”.

That comment came to mind on reading yesterday an admission by Romanian referee Mr Ovidiu Hategan that he had made a mistake in awarding Switzerland a game-winning penalty in their World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland in November.

Mr Hategan had awarded Switzerland the penalty after deeming Mr Corry Evans to have handled the ball inside the area at Windsor Park. Replays, however, clearly showed that the ball had struck the Northern Ireland player's shoulder.

Switzerland's Mr Ricardo Rodriguez converted the penalty, giving his team a 1-0 victory in the first leg of the play-off. A goalless return leg draw in Basel saw the Swiss go through 1-0 on aggregate, booking them a place at the World Cup Finals in Russia this summer.

That result crushed Northern Ireland's dreams of playing in the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

“It was a sad and not very nice moment for me,” Mr Hategan is reported to have told Romanian television this week.

“Sad because I made this mistake and painful because otherwise, on our side, we had put in a good performance. In the world of refereeing it's the same for goalkeepers: your mistakes get noticed,” he added.

Maybe that mistake cost Mr Hategan dearly because he is not among the 36 referees chosen by FIFA for the 2018 World Cup, despite the fact that he was named Romania's best referee last year by that country's association of professionals and amateurs.

Whatever the reason for the Romanian referee not being called to officiate at world football's premier tournament, his error gives even greater reason to support the use of technology in football, and sport in general.

We have long argued in this space that technology, properly utilised, adds credibility to on-field decisions by officials and erases doubt in the minds of spectators, thus preventing the anger and bitterness usually triggered by calls that are considered controversial.

Mr Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, supports the use of VARs at this summer's World Cup finals in Russia. A decision on that is expected in March.

There are, of course, views against the use of VARs. Among them is Mr Gianlguigi Buffon, the legendary Juventus goalkeeper, who has been reported as saying that it is “making the game ugly”, while German international Mr Sami Khedira has described it as “a disaster”.

However, we saw the technology's benefits in last year's Confederations Cup and the Under-20 World Cup. It is also being used in Italy's Serie A, the German Bundesliga, Major League Soccer in the USA, the Portuguese Primera Liga, the K League in South Korea and Australia's A-League.

Mr Infantino has expressed a real fear that a major tournament could be decided by a refereeing error. Those opposed to the use of VARs need only reflect on that Switzerland/Northern Ireland play-off and the possible outcome had Mr Hategan been able to have a VAR review of his call.

Mr Infantino, we believe, put it well when he said: “You have to help the refs and that happens through technology... It's definitely a forward step.”

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