Game changer? VAR turns from hero to villain on World’s biggest football stage

By Andrew Warshaw

July 16 – Long before the World Cup got under way, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was unequivocal. It was unthinkable, he said, for the destiny of the world’s greatest sporting occasion to be decided by a refereeing mistake. 

The introduction of the video assistant referee system would help ensure, he said, that this didn’t happen.

Three days before Sunday’s showpiece final in Moscow, Infantino was equally bullish. “VAR is not changing football, it is making football more honest and helping referees make the right decisions,” he said.

Tell that to Croatia’s vanquished players who for the rest of their lives will wonder what might have been had arguably the most crucial decision of the entire tournament gone their way, as it should have done.

For the final to be decided by the referee watching a monitor by the side of the pitch, then changing his mind and awarding France a penalty after the ball bounced up on to the arm of Ivan Perisic, negated everything positive about VAR.

Was it a “clear and obvious error” by the referee in the first place, as VAR guidelines require? It surely was not.  Was it deliberate handball? Highly dubious.

Was it a game-changing decision? You bet it was – except that it was the wrong one.

Even if there is an argument for saying the referee should have gone to the monitor, there is surely none for him to have changed his mind. So what on earth were the VAR officials playing at?

VAR has generally been hailed as a success in this tournament – rightly so. Only four red cards were shown in the entire finals, the lowest total since 1982, suggesting VAR had discouraged violent conduct.

But it ruined the final and FIFA cannot be allowed to simply turn a blind eye to that.

How can a system brought in to eliminate obvious blunders make such a decisive mistake? Two in fact if you take into account the freekick that led to France’s first goal. Replays showed Marcelo Brozovic, who was closest to Antoine Griezmann, did not touch him as the Frenchman fell.

Underdogs Croatia already had a huge task on their hands trying to beat a French team brimming with talent. After falling victim to the very system that was supposed to cut out mistakes, that task became monumental.

No wonder Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic was so upset after his team’s 4-2 defeat in an otherwise breathtaking final.

“We played well but the penalty knocked the wind out of us and after that it was very difficult,” he said. “I just want to say one sentence about that penalty: You don’t give a penalty like that in a World Cup final.”

Former German manager Jurgen Klinsmann told BBC television: “When you are not sure, you don’t give it. It was the wrong decision.”

And so say most of those watching. Don’t get me wrong, France deserved to win. They were better organised, physically stronger, counter-attacked ruthlessly – as they did throughout the tournament when they toppled both Argentina and Belgium ­- and in Kylian Mbappe, the first teenager to score in a final since Pelé in 1958, had the most exceptional individual talent even if Luca Modric won the best player award.

Didier Deschamps has become only the third man in history to win the World Cup as a player and manager, standing alongside Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer and it was fitting that he was feted by his players as the trophy was held aloft.

But as the skies darkened and the heavens opened, France’s second ever World Cup title still left something of a bitter taste and not just among the thousands of Croatian fans who had poured into Moscow to make the game a home from home.

You could argue, of course, that Croatia had their fair share of luck earlier in the tournament. Two shootout victories, plenty of decisions that went their way at the cruel expense of others. It just seemed such a shame that the most pivotal call of all took place in the biggest game of all.

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