Freiburg was involved in another VAR controversy this past weekend, away at Schalke. First it was awarded a penalty for handball against Schalke's midfielder Omar Mascarell. Then, on a prompt from the VAR, referee Frank Willenborg took another look and decided that it wasn't handball after all, although it's exactly the kind of penalty award we've seen hundreds of times. "I'm old-fashioned and conservative," said Freibrug's coach Christian Streich(no doubt with some irony, as he's anything but). "I'd rather have the game as it was before. It wouldn't be more just, but it would be the game I've known for the past 30 years." The game finished 0-0.
A third example of dubious VAR intervention came in last week's Champions League game between Ajax Amsterdam and Real Madrid. Long after Ajax players and fans had finished celebrating what had seemed like the Dutch side's opening goal, the VAR declared that forward Dusan Tadic had impeded Real's goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, as Ajax defender Nicolas Tagliafico's header was looping far beyond his reach. No Madrid players had protested (not even Sergio Ramos, who usually complains if the coin toss doesn't go his way), and Spanish newspaper El País rightly called it a "goal, that looked like a goal."
UEFA immediately tweeted that it had been the right call. The German federation had likewise backed its VAR for cancelling out Freiburg's winner against Wolfsburg, calling it "an absolutely correct decision." Yet all three cases cited above were example of VARs overstepping their remit. They are only supposed to intercede when there has been a clear mistake. Here we lost two goals which -- had they stood -- barely anyone would have bothered to discuss or dispute. And a penalty kick that might have decided a mediocre goalless tie.
Video evidence was a logical consequence of the raised financial stakes in professional soccer. It has taken the pressure off the lone center referee, and has seen many unjust decisions overturned. Its introduction was inevitable, for better and worse, and it's difficult to imagine that it will be repealed, despite the nostalgic longing of Freiburg's Streich.
What must be avoided, though, is that the VAR becomes -- to quote again Petersen's words -- an atmosphere-killer. That instead of talking about a dramatic late winner in a seven-goal game, we are left standing around while officials agonize over millimeters and minutiae. Savvy supporters will often cast a quick glance at the referee and his assistant immediately after their team's scored a goal, just to check that there was nothing amiss. When all looks clear, the celebrations begin. Now, it's becoming hard for us to let go, because no one wants to look a fool. You don't want to jump up and down for a minute, screaming and hugging fellow fans, only to see the man in the middle touching his earpiece, making the "Charades" TV screen gesture, and then running towards the sideline for a second (and third and fourth) look.
The skeptics warned us that this would be the consequence of using video evidence, and they have an increasingly strong case. Many of these close calls have to be watched several times over, which means not everyone's going to agree even once a final decision's been made. It also means that players and fans are standing around for minutes at a time, interrupting the game's natural flow, and providing fuel for critics who foresee a time when a 90-minute soccer match will be stretched out to two or three hours, like games in the stoppage-plagued NFL and NHL.
We end up in a philosophical discussion about the very essence of sport. Just how important is making the correct decision when weighed up against the tenor, the tradition and the feel of soccer? Should we eliminate notorious officiating howlers from the game's narrative? Doesn't the most-deserving team almost always end up winning anyway? An errant hand here, an offside shin there -- shouldn't we accept controversial, erroneous and marginal calls as part of soccer, just as we did for its first 150 years.
As recently as last fall, I was urging the out-of-step Premier League to hurry up and introduce the VAR, and next season it will. Now, like the isolated referee watching the ninth re-run of that trip in the box, I'm no longer quite so sure.
(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)