Russia and Chile win, Mexico and Portugal draw, video ref is the biggest loser so far

By Samindra Kunti in Moscow

June 18-  Under the watchful eye of president Vladimir Putin, Russia kicked off the Confederations Cup with a comfortable 2-0 win against New Zealand, but the tournament’s opening weekend was dominated by controversy over VAR.

Putin has always made hosting the 2018 World Cup a priority and on Saturday football ‘arrived’ in Russia with the Confederations Cup, a procession of glorified friendlies that serve as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Hosts Russia entertained New Zealand at the state-of-the-art Krestovky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Security was tight ahead at the venue with multiple checkpoints and a mix of FSO [Federal Protective Service] and OMON [Federal Police] forces securing the venue hours before kick-off.

Russia delivered with a 2-0 victory against the Oceanian champions. Putin, however, took centre stage before kick-off. Speaking from the grand stand to open the tournament, he said: “Here, on modern football arenas there will be tough, honest, fair fight until the last minutes of the match.”

Russia’s head of state had demanded that the ‘Sbornaya’ play like warriors, but they didn’t to against New Zealand, who lacked both shape and ambition in their game. Russia didn’t disappoint and tried to play constructive football with, at times, a fluent ball circulation. An own-goal from New Zealand defender Michael Boxall in the 31st minute and forward Fyodor Smolov’s strike in the 69th minute were enough to see off Anthony Wood’s team.

“For us it is very important to make people in the country fall in love with the national team,” said Smolov.

Russia got what it wanted in the opening game, but on Sunday the football took the back seat as confusion reigned over VAR decisions in the Portugal-Mexico and Chile-Cameroon matches. The VAR allows a review of match-deciding situations with the aid of video footage. Reviews may only be used to overturn ‘a clear error’, which FIFA defines as when ‘almost everyone who is neutral agrees the decision is incorrect’.

But Sunday’s matches highlighted the system’s inadequacies multiple times, with decisions slow to filter through to the referee and both players and fans left in confusion over when a VAR referral is justified.

This season VAR has been tested at the Club World Cup and the U20 World Cup in South Korea and FIFA want to fast-track the video reviews for next’s year World Cup. In March IFAB will take a decision over whether VAR will be used in Russia in 2018.

At the Confederations Cup VAR has proven to be fallible, time-consuming and confusing so far. With referees and VARs from different countries – Nestor Pitana from Argentina and Jair Marrufo (VAR) from the USA Damir Skomina from Slovakia and Clement Turpin (VAR) from France (for Cameroon vs Chile) – the application has felt muddled.

In Group B’s first match Pepe’s goal was ruled out for offside after a review that took about 40 seconds. Portugal coach Fernando Santos was visibly displeased with the decision. Ultimately the European champions drew with Mexico after conceding a late header from Hector Moreno.

“It’s the new rule, and if it brings benefits to football, that’s fine,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “But we have to be careful because I don’t think people understand this new rule really well.”

The group’s second game was no less controversial after two VAR decisions. First, at the brink of half-time, Eduardo Vargas’s goal was adjudged to have been scored from an offside position after review. At the end of the match Alexis Sanchez raced clear and his rebound was converted by Vargas. This time Turpin confirmed the goal. The Chilean striker became the first player in football history with a goal denied and confirmed by the VAR.

VAR has been at the heart of the tournament so far, but it remains a work in progress.

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