VAR Is Making A Mess Of The Champions League

Illustration for article titled VAR Is Making A Mess Of The Champions League
Photo: Julian Finney (Getty Images)

However we got here, we’re certainly here now. When the Champions League announced that it would introduce VAR—Video Assistant Referee, essentially soccer’s answer to the instant replay challenge—midway through this current campaign, the system brought years of baggage with it. Its deployment at last year’s World Cup was mostly acceptable, but that was due to the best and brightest referees worldwide descending on Russia. In domestic leagues, the results have been more varied; every major league in Europe aside from England has used it, and every league has made people mad with it. I mean, take a look at this shit from the Bundesliga:

The first set of round of 16 Champions League games, unsurprisingly, had their own VAR problems; Schalke jumped out to a shocking 2-0 lead over Manchester City thanks to a VAR-aided penalty call on Nicolás Otamendi, while Atletico Madrid’s perpetually-disallowed striker Álvaro Morata had a goal taken away because replay found he lightly pushed a Juventus player down in the box prior to scoring. In both of those cases, though, VAR could have been seen to hinder the team that eventually won, so there wasn’t as much hubbub raised over the decision, beyond the immediate reactions.


If there was one VAR call in the last set of games that stung the eventual losing side, it was in the first leg of Ajax-Real Madrid, where the Dutch Boys saw a goal disappear because... well, it wasn’t particularly clear.

The ruling was that because Ajax’s Dušan Tadić came from an offside position to impede Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the goal would not stand, and yet, did he truly impede Courtois? It didn’t seem like it, particularly to those rooting for a Madrid collapse. More than being an incorrect VAR decision, this one was marred more by its obtuseness, a switch on a rule that wasn’t properly vetted out in real time.

It took until this week, however, for the existential problems surrounding soccer and instant replay to really make their mark on the sport’s premier continental club competition. Three of the four matches of the week—only Tottenham’s ho-hum 1-0 away win over Dortmund escaped any VAR shenanigans of note—had key calls go to replay, and in every instance, it left players, coaches, and viewers confused, conflicted, or just straight-up furious.

Take it from Neymar, who reacted to a last-minute VAR penalty in favor of Manchester United with the fire of a thousand burning suns on his Instagram stories (translation by ESPN):

This is a disgrace. Four guys who know nothing about football watch a slow-motion replay in front of the television. It was nothing! What can [Kimpembe] do with his hand while his back is turned? Go fuck yourselves!”


Let’s start with the call that got Neymar so angry, which was the most high-profile and contested of the week. In the 89th minute, Manchester United’s Diogo Dalot rocketed a shot into the box as his team was looking for a goal to send them through to the quarterfinals. The ball very clearly hit PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe in the box; no one is arguing that. However, VAR was called in to, uh, figure out Kimpembe’s intent, to somehow slow the video down until it could be determined that purposefully stuck his hand out to block the shot (which was, it must be said, likely sailing high of the goal).


This might be more of a handball rule issue than a VAR issue, but there’s the rub: VAR can only work with the rules as they stand, and the handball rule, more often than not, lives and dies on player intent, which is hard enough to figure out even when breaking down plays frame by frame. How many times do you have to watch the slow-motion clip above before the intent that existed in Kimpembe’s mind is revealed? These are the sort of impossible to answer questions that VAR raises in its ostensible quest to provide more clarity to the game.

Thanks to its vague definition, VAR is also able to litigate far more moments than it should. Take Ajax’s world-shattering thumping of Real Madrid on Tuesday; sure, Ajax was the better team (really, over both legs), but there was still a moment of doubt, where it seemed like a Real VARdrid meme came to life and took over the game in the 65th minute. Tadić, who had the game of his goddamn life on Tuesday, scored a cracker of a goal to put Ajax up 3-0 (4-2 on aggregate), only to have it go to replay because the ball might have maybe, possibly, infinitesimally gone out of bounds in the build-up to the goal:


The goal was allowed to stand, but that a review process occurred in the first place raised even more concerning questions about how VAR might be applied in the future. How far back into the game are referees allowed to journey in search of some missed call or foul that could erase a goal that occurred later? Current Ajax star (and future Barcelona player) Frenkie De Jong said as much afterwards, joking that he thought the refs were going to go back into the first half to see if there was a foul to negate the Tadić cracker.


While both of those calls involved the highest-profile matches of their respective days, featuring some of the biggest clubs in Europe, the match most affected by VAR was the under-watched Roma-Porto classic. Though no one will dispute VAR confirming Roma’s penalty shout in the first half (clear as day), two calls within roughly five minutes of each other in the second half of extra time will leave the Italian club’s fans furious. They also both showed how VAR can over-step its boundaries by reviewing things that were, pretty definitively, not “clear errors.”

First up was Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi taking down Porto’s Fernando in the box in the dying embers of the match, with the aggregate score tied at 3-3. This felt, in theory, like the perfect situation for VAR to be implemented: a high-leverage situation that, effectively, decided the entire tie. In reality, though, it was such a bang-bang play of the kind that happen on set pieces every single time out that it feels like a stretch to label the initial no-call a “clear error.” Florenzi probably does foul him (and Fernando does make a meal of it, especially since he was almost certainly not reaching the cross in time).


The call also slowed the momentum of a game, and especially a second half of extra time, that was full to the brim with tense action. This is the kind of soccer that people should tune in for: two teams, evenly matched, fighting tooth and nail to score the clinching goal. Instead, the last five minutes of play devolved into what felt like 15 minutes of replays.


That’s because the other call happened shortly after on the other side of the field: Porto hero Moussa Marega looked to have, but didn’t really, clipped Roma striker Patrick Schick just inside the Porto penalty area. Even in live time, it looked like, if anything, Marega slightly tapped him and Schick (as you would in stoppage time) flopped to draw the call.


Instead of moving on and letting Roma continue its desperation barrage on the Porto goal, we had to stop yet again to review a call that was almost certainly correct on the field. The existence of replay demands exactness, even when such exactness isn’t needed. It also opens up an avenue of complaints that doesn’t need to exist: misinterpretation of VAR decisions.

Roma fans likely wouldn’t have fixated on the Schick foul without VAR, but now? Now they can say that they saw a foul where the referees didn’t, because we demand that referees be perfect when they can see the same slowed-down replays we can at home.


And those replays aren’t even infallible! La Liga was one of the first big leagues to implement VAR, and, in true La Liga fashion, it did it all wrong. Architect Nacho Tellado found that the league was implementing the lines it used for offside decisions incorrectly. This angered the league so much that he was fired from the television program he worked at, only for La Liga to implement his more “correct” offside lines afterwards.

One thing is pretty much settled, if you take other sports and their various replay controversies as evidence: VAR is here to stay, in some form. Once you cross the Rubicon of instant replay, it’s difficult to backtrack. So, then, is VAR broken for good? In its current form, yeah, probably. But there are some easy changes that would help ease the woes that come from its implementation.


The most important one is clearing up the language of when VAR will be used; by attaching its utility to “clear error” clarifications, it’s been painted into a subjective corner, where fans will either cry out for more VAR in situations where it’s not needed or, as Roma found out, its perverse mirror image, where situations that weren’t clearly wrong on the field get replayed ad infinitum.

Once that’s been fixed, it’s time to take the plunge no other sport has yet: make the replays full-speed and not indefinite. A referee should only get to see things at the speed they would have seen on the field. That’s the only way to make sure something is clearly wrong; if a striker is one millimeter offside and you can only tell from slowing it down to a frame by frame analysis, then maybe let him be onside.


You should also not be able to watch 27 different replays and angles to make the choice. Humans aren’t perfect, sure, but if you need to see something so many times that it’s ingrained in your memory forever, perhaps go with the original call and move on. Five full-speed replays from five different angles seems like a reasonable enough number. After all, referees are, despite fan consensus, highly-trained and highly-skilled individuals; five is more than enough to make sure you’re not making a match-killing error.

It’s fine if you want to cut VAR some slack, as it is still in its infancy, but don’t ignore its very real problems for the sake of innovation. If we simply must have instant replay in soccer, apply it in such a way that it enhances the game, not one that becomes the story afterwards. Neymar’s rant ignores the knowledge that referees have, but it does highlight one important point: if you can only tell something happened by slowing it down to the extreme, then maybe it’s fine that it didn’t happen.

Staff Writer at Deadspin