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Opinion: VAR serving up more World Cup injustice

Kommentarbild Matt Pearson
Matt Pearson
November 30, 2022

In the end, it had little consequence, as Argentina and Poland progressed on Wednesday. But a penalty awarded to Lionel Messi was another reminder that VAR isn't fair and isn't working, says DW's Matt Pearson.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni points towards an official holding a flag
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni protested strongly about the incident that won his side a penaltyImage: picture alliance/dpa

In the long list of wrongs at this World Cup, dodgy penalties are fairly low down. But, in purely sporting terms, some of the decisions made by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) have been a travesty.

On Wednesday, Poland were fighting to keep Argentina at bay in the first half with the game goalless. Wojciech Szczesny had just made another smart save and reached for a cross at the back post, brushing Lionel Messi's face on the way down with the ball gone and the play unaffected.

A minute or two later, the Polish keeper wore a rueful smile as referee Danny Makkelie, who had initially seen no issue with the contact, returned from the TV monitor to overturn his decision. Outside of the raucous Argentines in the stands and on the pitch, almost no one thought it was a penalty.

Subjective calls problematic

It was the same with an absurd injury time penalty for Portugal against Uruguay on Monday, where a handball was given in direct contravention of the laws of the game. While the semiautomated VAR has been an improvement in the efficiency of offside calls, these bizarre subjective decisions are difficult to swallow.

That Szczesny saved Messi's penalty, or that Argentina and Poland both progressed after a 2-0 win for the South Americans, is not the point. It is that it, and a handful of other decisions, are not the clear and obvious errors VAR is supposed to help referees overturn. Offsides are measurable and, broadly speaking, objective. Fouls and handballs aren't. There may be an argument to keep the bits that work and dump the bits that don't.

Wojciech Szczesny saves a penalty from Lionel Messi
Wojciech Szczesny saved Lionel Messi's penalty, but should it have been given?Image: picture alliance/dpa

But realistically, we're stuck with this flawed system operated by humans who make human errors. FIFA and the world's biggest, and most lucrative, leagues have hitched their wagon to VAR and it seems that whether it works or not is besides the point.

Who wins with VAR?

It's very hard to see who, outside of the beneficiaries in the moment, gains from it as it stands. On-pitch referees are made to pore over decisions in the distorted light of slow motion replays, players have no idea how to safely defend, coaches are still some way short of the officiating consistency most crave and match-going fans often have no idea what's going on.

Those who advocate for VAR suggest it eliminates terrible errors and allows more rational decision making. But those two penalties, and several more, including Iran's against England and those denied for Canada against Belgium are confusing, poorly explained and unfair. Some of them are actually creating errors, not eliminating them.

Added to that, some parts of football, corners for example, always see plenty of contact. All of these look worse slowed down and taken from multiple angles.

Canada are out and Uruguay could follow them. Perhaps Alphonso Davies would've missed from the spot for the second time in the match and perhaps Uruguay wouldn't have got an undeserved late equalizer anyway. But if we're not getting better decisions than the on-field referees make themselves, then what's the point?

Edited by: Michael da Silva

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