Commentary

World Cup 2022 group games, first round: A surfeit of VAR, politics and stoppage time

VAR! What is it good for?

It took all of three minutes for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to start spoiling this World Cup. As if it needed any further dampeners after years of discussions about the way millions of migrant workers have been – and continue to be — exploited and mistreated in Qatar. But here we finally were, with the host nation taking on Ecuador in front of a world not especially excited to be watching a November tournament, and the first action was snuffed out for half a limb apparently gaining an unfair but very marginal advantage.

Yes, technically the offside decision was correct, but in previous times not even television replays would have picked up on it, let alone the AR. Remember those days, when commentators would mention “a hint of offside” in a goal’s buildup, but nobody cared, not even fans of the team who’d conceded. A hint of offside is factored into the acceptable spectrum of human error. It was always part of the game, and irrelevant to considerations of fair play or attempts to cheat. It simply did not matter if a toe or a shin or a calf muscle or a shoulder was offside (see also: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia).

What else has the VAR given us during the opening round of games? Penalty decisions for ‘handballs’ that used to pass us by because it was accepted that players could not remove themselves from shots or crosses played in at point-blank range. Holding at corner kicks that’s been ignored for years because usually both players are at it. And then, best of all, judging that a blatant double foul (a push and a trip) by Belgium’s Axel Witsel on Canada’s Richie Laryea was not a foul at all.

“VAR! What is it good for?” to misquote a hit of the 80s. Yet another FIFA creation to suffocate what we once enjoyed as soccer.

Directives to refs: this week only!

FIFA will often use World Cups to try out new applications of existing rules. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, given that the world is watching. In practice, though, the new directives are applied without any consistency, or just don’t make sense.

So tournaments often start with flurries of yellow cards for what would normally be considered run-of-the-mill fouls. FIFA is, via the referees, Making a Statement. Fouling’s bad, people! Qatar-Ecuador and USA-Wales — neither game especially rough — each saw six yellow cards, which is fine if that’s the message you want to send, but after just three or four days, the referees were back to verbal warnings for fouls that in the above-mentioned games would have drawn yellows. Soccer above all sports is a game of inconsistencies, we all know that, but the rules — and their alternatively over-exuberant or lax implementation — play a huge part in that.

Then there’s the eternal stoppage time. FIFA has decided that we’re not seeing enough soccer. True, a lot of time is lost to goal celebrations, faked injuries, VAR indecisions, free kicks with a wall setup, and the now obligatory 10 subs per game. But there are other ways to curb this — clamp down on all the fake theater, time-wasting and gamesmanship, say. Abolish the VAR. Properly sanction players who stand over a ball as soon as a free kick’s awarded to stop it being taken quickly (it’s already in the laws). Punish dissent to curb the ‘discussions’ (also in the "Laws of the Game"). Stipulate that a team who’s just conceded can kickoff straightaway —why should we have to witness the drawn-out amateur dramatics of the goal celebrations? Let the fans celebrate and the players play on.

Already by the end of the first-round of games, though, this stoppage time fetish seemed to be ebbing. Why? Because a soccer game lasts 90 minutes, and it’s one of the few certainties we have left in this world besides death, taxes, greed and the obnoxious stupidity of Gianni Infantino. Which brings us to ...

Infantino and FIFA — time to say goodbye

It’s been reported that Denmark and possibly other European soccer federations are considering a move to leave FIFA after the governing body’s laughable threat to sanction any countries who went through with their plans to wear the innocuous One Love captain’s armband. That those countries buckled under pressure is a shame. That FIFA reacted with such craven consideration to the openly homophobic host country is a disgrace, but not a surprise. The threat not only defies FIFA’s own statutes on human rights and equality (and all their token poster campaigns too), but it also reflects the weakness and moral vacuum at the heart of FIFA’s power-grabbing, self-interested, demonstrably corrupt leadership.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has long been one of the least respected leaders with a global profile. ‘He’s good at shaking hands’ is about the only kind thing you can say in his favor. As though wanting to test just how low he could sink, he spent the Saturday before the tournament giving a bizarre press conference where he compared himself with the downtrodden migrant workers of Qatar, and the LGBTQI+ community. Why? Because he was teased about having freckles and red hair at school. Gianni knows oppression, oh yes.

This witless lickspittle is the worst person alive to take the global game forward, and has become a chronic embarrassment lacking a single gram of credibility. So who’s challenging him for the FIFA presidency next March? No one. Not a single candidate from the world’s regional confederations or national soccer associations will be opposing Infantino, despite the criminal investigations in Switzerland regarding the mediocre opportunist’s dubious past conduct at both UEFA and FIFA. That says it all. The global game’s administration is broken beyond repair. Scrap FIFA, start anew.

Oh, there’s soccer on too?

If you feel I’m being overly down on this World Cup, go to the top of the class. It’s been very hard to conjure up enthusiasm for a tournament in a country clearly unfit to host on several levels. Plus, the World Cup belongs to June and July just like Thanksgiving belongs to late November.

Still, applause for the exciting play of England, Spain and France. Also, for the inspirational courage of the Iranian players who abstained from singing their national anthem to support protests back home against their tyrannical, murderous government. Oh, there we go again already. Politics. You just can’t get away from it right now. Why can’t we just get on with the sport and enjoy the games? Maybe you can. Even the many low-scoring games. Normally, I’d be jumping off the sofa and whooping loudly at the best moves. The family and the neighbors are used to it. Like ‘a hint of offside,' they’ve factored it in to my game. This time, they probably think I’m part of the boycott. It’s always been a very tempting alternative.

All proceeds from this column will be donated to Human Rights Watch (HRW). You can read the latest HRW reports on Qatar here.

10 comments about "World Cup 2022 group games, first round: A surfeit of VAR, politics and stoppage time".
  1. Bill Dooley, November 25, 2022 at 10:16 a.m.

    The verdict to date: two words, the first being cluster.

  2. Peter Bechtold, November 25, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.

    Ian just can't help himself. He cannot begin a day seeing and saying something positive. Like about the amazing architecture of Qatar,s new world. Or the museum's displaying Middle Eastern art or global movements. Of course, in his last piece he admitted to never have been in the region. Yet he is relentless in his attacks on a country which he admits to not knowing. Why?

    Just the latest dosage of West European cultural imperialism? Have you noticed that all complaints about this WC originate there ? Nothing from Central or Soth America, nothing from Eastern Europe and Asia, nothing from Africa or South Asia. Only from the region that gave us colonialism and conquest by foreign governments over populations of non white peoples. For shamed, Ian. And why does SA continue to publish his one sided diatribes ?

  3. Ian Plenderleith replied, November 26, 2022 at 8:14 a.m.

    I was certain we'd hear from our resident apologist for dictatorships and the suppression of human rights - hi, Peter! You might have noticed that the column addresses the issues of VAR, refereeing, FIFA - all soccer matters, and very little about your beloved state of Qatar, which I wrote about extensively in my book reviews. Have you read the book 'Inside Qatar' that I reviewed? I'd be geniuinely fascinated to know what you make of it. I have nothing to say about the architecture and galleries you cite because, as you pointed out, I've never been there, so how could I write about them? I'm sure they're impressive. So is the Kremlin, I believe (part of the host nation to the 2018 World Cup), but a building alone can't excuse the invasion of Ukraine and the bombing of infrastructure. How can I comment on that war when I'm not even there!?! Because bombing innocent people is wrong, just like worker exploitation. It's an odd take that because people in South America and Asia (what, all of them?) are not critical of human rights issues in the Gulf, then neither should people in Europe or the USA be. Why is that exactly? Because our ancestors were colonialists? I'd say that's even more reason to be critical. I'd venture that being aware of the downside of your own country's history is a very good thing - helps to prevent things recurring, which is why holocaust denial in Germany is a criminal offence.

    My "one-sided diatribes" give you the opportunity to respond in kind, because that's the benefit of living in countries with freedom of speech. So there's that in favour of my columns, even if you view them as "expressions of cultural imperialism" (interesting interpretation of my views on VAR and stoppage time, by the way!). 

  4. Mark Landefeld, November 25, 2022 at 5:56 p.m.

    I can't watch the cup.  I saw Jeremy Schapps reporting years ago and realied I probably wouldn't be able to watch, knowing what this event had cost in lives of imported laborers.

    I just can't say "FIFA is corrupt", throw up my hands and then be complicit by watching.

    I'm really looking forward to WWC 2023.

  5. James Geluso, November 26, 2022 at 5:37 a.m.

    I really hope someone gets it together to challenge Infantino. I mean, come on, the guy is not good at this job. He embarrassed FIFA with his speech (tough to do considering how embarrassed FIFA already was). And he -- the people working for him, the people he's responsible for -- botched the deal with EA, causing FIFA to lose an income stream for which it had to do no work. 

  6. Kent James, November 26, 2022 at 9:34 a.m.

    FIFA needs to be revamped and the Cup should never have been held in Qatar.  Teams should've persisted in wearing the armbands (and other teams should've supported them).  I'm glad Qatar has lost its games.  I am not going to boycott watching the WC because I don't feel the benefits outweigh the cost.  

    As for VAR, yes, of course the offside call in the first game was surprising, and nobody was calling for it.  But no system is perfect.  So is it better to get some calls right that people can't see in real time, or get calls wrong?  I prefer getting them right.  On offside, as many have suggested, there should be a 6" minimum (to avoid the toenail being offside problem), or even better,  daylight between the torsos of the players.  I agree about the cards given to players standing over the ball, and it is a real black mark on professional officiated that something so easily enforced is not. Talk about your low-hanging fruit.


    Finally, there should be a penalty for players who embellish fouls (or make them up).  If that is missed in real time, a penalty should be given after the game (they miss the next match).  It is ridiculous when an arm brushes a face and the player goes down like they had their face punched.  That makes the refs job difficult, and can cause games to get out of control (players get testy when they think someone has punched their teammate, and they get equalliy testy when they think their opponent is faking being punched...).

  7. Ben Myers replied, November 28, 2022 at 12:19 a.m.

    There is a penalty for players who embellish fouls or make them up.  It's called UnSporting Behavior (USB).  It's up to referees to enforce USB.  It's up to stodgy IFAB to think creatively for a change and issue directives about USB, applied particularly in the professional ranks. It is disgusting to me to see kids emulating the pros, either because that's what their coaches teach them (instead of teaching them to actually play) or because they are emulating the pros sho studied under Stanislavski's disciples.

    A minimum of a yellow or two every match for made up fouls would send a clear message to the floppers to cease and desist. But IFAB and all the referee associations are intimidated by the highly paid marquee players who roll on the ground in life-threatening agony then leap to their feet a minute later and trot off.

  8. Kent James replied, November 28, 2022 at 3:30 p.m.

    Ben, I certainly favor referees giving yellow cards for simulation (and as a former ref, I certainly did that), but it is VERY hard to be sure on some of this stuff.   So you're not going to get it right every time.  That being said, is it better to give YC for simulation to someone who was actually fouled, or not give a YC that was deserved for simulation.  I think the latter.  But at the highest level (where it seems to be an even bigger problem with bigger consequences), we need to use video to punish the worst cases missed by the ref.  My hope is, once people knew they were likely to be caught and punished, they'd be less likely to try.

  9. Santiago 1314, November 27, 2022 at 10:58 p.m.

    Offside should be Changed to;
    WHOLE(Not Arm Pits) of the Attacking Player must be beyond the WHOLE(Not Arm Pits) of the 2nd to Last Player
    Handball should be:
    Any Ball that Connects with part of the Arm that is Not in Contact with Players Body, Shall be Whistled for a Foul;
    UNINTENTIONAL Handball will be a INDIRECT Kick
    INTENTIONAL Handball will be a DIRECT Kick
    I Prefer that ALL Political "Standpoints" be Left Out of the Stadium and Uniforms

  10. humble 1, November 28, 2022 at 1:18 p.m.

    Gianni Infantino, ultimate insider.  Cut from same clothe as Havalange and Blatter, proabably groomed by them.  Soccer/Football at this level is no better than our MLB, NBA, NFL, and now MLS and for me, not that far from wild and crazy world of wrestling in the USA.  Is-what-it-is.  All-about-money.  Not pure, but, pure entertainment.  All to be taken with a grain of salt.  At the outset - I expected to see the smaller countries do better - because typically - the corrupt ways to bury them in the WC is to put them on long airplane rides for every game.  Always happens to Uruguay.  Not this time.  So take it for what it is.  If you chose not to watch - this is good - because you have the right to chose.  Not that way everywhere.  For me soccer really does not have a large positive impact - geopolitically - as some of us would like it to.  FIFA seems to be pretty much focused on mining the commercial side.  All about the money, with lip service only to principals of any sort. 

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