So far -- according to my own measurements -- we’re getting about equal shares of positive interventions and less satisfactory situations. I have now developed a feeling -- possibly quite false -- that the mere presence of VAR -- the threat of that intimidating battery of extra officials -- may be sharpening referee performances on the field.
Exactly the sort of thing, so hard to measure, that makes it difficult to judge VAR’s effectiveness. There are still 16 World Cup games to go, plenty of time for me to concoct new theories, and plenty of time for VAR to prove that its huge cost and complex operating procedure are worth it.
In the meantime, I must draw attention to a refereeing procedure that is far from new and that has nothing to do with technology. But one that very definitely does pose a huge problem.
One that is entirely created by soccer itself, one that has been enshrined in the rules for as long as anyone can remember: that when a player is ejected, he cannot be replaced. His team is thus forced to play the rest of a game with 10 men.
Full disclosure is necessary: I do not like this rule, and have come out strongly against it in the past -- including in this column, in 2005 and 2009.
SoccerTalk (11/12/2009): Rethinking the red-card rule
This long-standing rule hit Colombia with catastrophic force in the third minute of its first game in Russia. Defender Carlos Sanchez was judged to have handled the ball (a correct decision by referee Damir Skomina). Sanchez was ejected, Japan got a penalty, from which it scored. Colombia, now a goal down, would have to play virtually the entire game with 10 men.
Colombia lost the game -- a game which, inevitably, had been drained of the expectant competitiveness of a real encounter and had turned into something rather different, something much less vibrant, almost like a death-watch for the Colombian fans as they waited to see how long their team could hold on to a 1-1 tie.
Losing the first game is likely to be fatal in the World Cup. After less than four minutes of play, Colombia found that all its World Cup training -- lasting over two years, costing probably millions, was in dire danger of coming to nothing, that its World Cup was going to be over almost before it had started.
Does that make any sense at all? Well, Colombia knew the rules, so therefore had only itself to blame. All true, but that falls well short of being an acceptable justification for an absurdly excessive punishment that marred what promised to be an enthralling game, that diminished the tournament, that ferociously punished one offense -- not merely with the penalty kick and the ejection, but by jeopardizing the entire Colombian World Cup adventure, and by making a mockery of their traveling fans -- of whom there seemed to be plenty in the Saransk stadium.
The Japanese fans presumably found nothing wrong with the events, but the soccer authorities should be seriously disturbed. How can they justify a rule -- their own rule -- that quite methodically distorts their sport?
A rule that, in this case, threatened to introduce into the greatest of all sports events an element of sheer farce? As it happened, that woeful outcome was avoided by a close-to-miraculous performance from Colombia which, aided by an unlikely Poland 1 Japan 0 scoreline, ended up topping the group.
A happy ending, then for this episode of soccer soiling its own nest. But the problem remains. In the modern sport, the sport should always be played as it is meant to be played -- as an 11 v 11 competition. It must be permissible to replace an ejected player. An alternative to reducing it to 10 men must be found to punish the offending team. It seems to me that there are plenty of options, an almost bewildering number of them. The use of sin bins (which I do not like), awarding penalty kicks for every red card, only allowing replacement once per game, allowing replacement but canceling all other substitutions, allowing replacement only after a two-yellow ejection, not after a direct red, replacement only in the first half, replacement only after a stipulated time lapse, and so on.
Of course, none of those ideas, nor any variation or combination of them, will be totally satisfactory. But any of them is almost certain to be better than what we have now.