We can list all the pros and cons of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) until the beer taps have been turned off and the jukebox disconnected at the wall, but we can be certain of one thing: no one can claim for sure that the VAR has made soccer a better game, or a more fair one. In fact, two incidents in the Women's World Cup round of 16 game between England and Nigeria present a strong case against. The VAR is not just unnecessarily complicating soccer, it's actively hindering justice.
In the 31st minute, referee Melissa Borjas called a penalty kick for England when Nigeria's midfielder Rasheedat Ajibade pushed over Rachel Daly as she was poised to jump for a header from an incoming free-kick. It's the kind of sneaky offense that happens at every corner and free kick in the professional game, and it mostly goes unpunished. Borjas, though, saw Ajibade's right hand push on Daly's shoulder at a key moment, and correctly blew her whistle. While Daly may have taken a slightly dramatic tumble, it was a sound call. Courageous, even.
The Nigerians protested, as a matter of course — with VAR, players know that they can place doubt in the minds of the officials (on field or off), and that a delay to the re-start will give the VAR time for a review.
Despite the clear and obvious lack of a clear and obvious error in this case, VAR Armando Villarreal called Borjas over for a second look. You always know what will happen then, as on-field referees seem serially afraid to contradict their peers in the video capsule. Borjas rescinded her call on the grounds that there was "no foul." Even though the foul was there for all to see.
You'll be familiar with the next argument. "It wasn't enough for a penalty." And so it's worth reiterating: a foul in the penalty area should be treated in the same way as a foul elsewhere on the field. If it's a foul, it's a foul. There is nothing, not a single word, in soccer's rules that state a foul in the penalty area has to be 'foul enough' for a penalty kick. There never will be. Who would dare to try and define this boundary between a foul that's insufficiently hard for a penalty, and a foul that is? (This criterion never applies for handball offenses, strangely enough — here the VAR can impose a fine for jay-walking, even though there may not be a car within five miles.)
So, one decision botched and bottled. Now we move into the third minute of overtime, with the score still at 0-0. In England's penalty area, Nigeria's Michelle Alozie is rising to head a long ball from the right hand side of the field when England's Lucy Bronze charges her from the side and sends her flying. Borjas is perfectly positioned to see the offense, but waves play on, dismissing Nigerian appeals for a penalty.
The slow motion replay shows a clear, indisputable offense, but the VAR review never comes. Perhaps the FIFA contract stipulates that VARs don't have to work overtime. Perhaps the foul was evaluated as 'shoulder-to-shoulder,' in which case both Villarreal and Borjas should never officiate another game at this level. There is simply no explanation for not calling this foul as a penalty. It surely even crosses our mythical boundary about being 'enough.'
Unless we think back to the withdrawn penalty call in the first half. The officials had painted themselves into a corner. How could they say that Ajibade's clear push in the back of Daly was not a penalty, but then maintain that Bronze's charging of Alozie was? England would have had the right to complain about the inequity of justice. Yet if the VAR had not interfered in the first incident, it could certainly have pointed to the blatant foul in the second.
That's the consequence of VAR. Two wrong decisions apparently make for a right one, which you can argue has been happening in games for years, long before VAR. But not quite so explicitly as here. And not through a mechanism which, we were told upon its introduction, would bring clarity and correctness to soccer so that games at the highest level were no longer subject to blatant error.
Refereeing decisions were never perfect, and never will be. But I preferred the imperfection based on a snap judgment, and then we quickly moved on. It was explicable, at least — human error is very much part of the players' game, and of the officials' too.
Now the imperfection we have is baffling, incoherent and borderline ridiculous. We should keep goal-line technology, but leave all other decisions to the officials on the field. Micro-refereeing has not just failed, it's becoming a blight on the game that brings us nothing but stalled celebrations, fractious and lengthy delays, and a significant number of calls more erroneous and unjust than ever before.