Who could have foreseen it?
That although many fans clamoured for technology to reduce errors, its use wouldn’t reduce controversy? That the video assistant referee (VAR) would create delays? That we’d continue to argue over events captured by TV cameras?
Gee, I don’t know…
But although I was spot on with my prediction (which, to save you checking, I made more than a fortnight before VAR was first used in an A-League game), I’m not joining the mainstream media writers who spent the weekend trying to play to the gallery with referees-and-VAR-are-a-farce-so-do-something-FFA lines.
Like it or not, VAR is staying at least until the end of the season.
And so it should. This is a trial and (take a deep breath) FIFA President Gianni Infantino wants VAR to be used at next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.
The final decision about whether or not that happens is likely to be made in a few months.
The experiences in the leagues using VAR this season – which include Germany’s and Italy’s – should have some bearing on what FIFA decides to do. You never know, our feedback might be important too.
Oh, and in case you’re asking, there isn’t much love for VAR in the big European countries that have it either.
Which brings us to part two of fans’ frustrations: the officials involved (including those on the field as they’re still highly relevant). VAR is only supposed to overturn a clear error – and that shines a big light on the on-field referee’s original decision.
I’m always loathe to criticise match officials and, frankly, most A-League referees are quite good. Five of them are on FIFA’s international panel – not bad going in a 10-team competition.
Adelaide United fans were rightly upset on the weekend when a penalty was given against Ryan Strain for handball late in the Reds’ match in Newcastle.
Amazingly, it was the third contentious handball decision in Adelaide United’s last four matches. A week ago, a spot kick was given against Ben Garuccio and, two weeks before that, fortune favoured the Reds’ when Western Sydney’s Robert Cornthwaite was penalised.
And all three of those decisions were wrong. In each case, the player did not handle deliberately – an absolute requirement for handling the ball to be punishable.
I don't understand where his arm is meant to go. Disappointed pic.twitter.com/VEBMpX2011
— Jordan Elsey (@JordanElsey1) December 16, 2017
But I don’t blame the Australian referees for forgetting the “deliberately” part because… well… everyone else around the world does too.
It’s nothing new and indeed it was a global problem long before I wrote about it two and a half years ago.
If I felt I might have imagined how big the disconnect is between what the law says and how it’s usually applied, recent weeks have convinced me that, if anything, I understated it.
Let’s just look at what the law says again:
“A direct free kick is … awarded to the opposing team if a player … handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area).”
It doesn’t even include the words “in the opinion of the referee” which can be found in several other places in the laws. Even the offside law:
“A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play…”
But perhaps all of us in the game are guilty of messing with officials’ minds when it comes to handball. In any Sunday morning match, when a ball is kicked into a player’s midriff from close range, at least half the opposing team will yell out “handball”. As ludicrous as that is, some players even continue their protests after the referee ignores their appeals.
If the same thing happens in a match with spectators, many fans also appeal for handball and then boo, complain or allege conspiracy if it isn’t given.
A lot of (professional) players, managers and pundits don’t help either. When the decision against Ben Garuccio was being analysed after Adelaide United’s recent match with Melbourne Victory, a former Socceroo said that, because the ball was goal bound, a penalty was the right decision. Really…
A few months ago I had a chat with a senior referee and the conversation turned to handball. I mentioned something I’d raised in my 2015 column about the subject: that the game has a problem when defenders compromise their balance by putting their arms behind their backs when facing crosses just in case penalties are given against them if those crosses hit their arms (because they’re not confident that match officials understand when a handball is accidental or if that’s the only test being applied).
This referee replied that those defenders were being smart by removing any possibility that handball would be given against them.
You got that? His first thought was that players are being clever when they make an unnatural movement to ensure they can’t be penalised not that it’s a problem that they feel the need to do so.
When the ball struck Strain on Saturday, a lot of the things that are wrong with handball happened in seconds. Firstly, Newcastle players appealed (which is normal but shouldn’t be); then referee Stephen Lucas pointed to the spot more quickly than any pistol was ever drawn in a Western; then, even though Strain had tried to pull his arm out of the way after the ball ricocheted to him from close range, Adelaide United players didn’t even seem to protest that the handball couldn’t have been deliberate – instead, some of them pointed to their chests to suggest that that was where the ball struck Strain.
You see, the word “deliberately” is so regularly ignored, the Reds naturally decided that they had a better chance by arguing that the ball never hit Strain’s arm, not that he couldn’t possibly have avoided it (not that the ref is ever going to change his mind in any case).
To top everything off, VAR couldn’t overrule the decision.
Lucas isn’t one of the A-League’s international refs but he is experienced. And each of the three handball decisions I’ve mentioned were made by a different official. The one against Cornthwaite was made by Chris Beath, who is on the FIFA list.
How can that be a penalty when his arms are tucked behind his body and then the VAR doesn’t overule?? No wonder fans, commentators, officials, players and coaches are confused! #ALeague #NEWvADL
— TomRehn9 (@tomrehn9) December 16, 2017
And though the decision against Strain was the worst of the three, it’s nowhere near the worst I’ve seen. That was a handball awarded by a German referee called Manuel Gräfe, an incident I described in the aforementioned 2015 column.
By the way, Gräfe has been on FIFA’s international panel for 10 years.
And that ought to sum up that these refereeing matters that are upsetting many A-League fans are truly worldwide problems. At the moment there are several reasons why supporters of the sport might take issue with FFA but VAR and contentious decisions shouldn’t be on that list.
Indeed it’s ironic that we love to boast that ours is the most international of sports but then suddenly look inwards when the same things that trouble fans overseas are in our backyards.
While 2017 may be remembered as the year we met VAR (for better or worse), 2018 might be the year that decides its future. And that resolution will be made a long, long way from here.
Have a happy new year.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist. Manton St Tales will return on January 8.
We value local independent journalism. We hope you do too.
InDaily provides valuable, local independent journalism in South Australia. As a news organisation it offers an alternative to The Advertiser, a different voice and a closer look at what is happening in our city and state for free. Any contribution to help fund our work is appreciated. Please click below to become an InDaily supporter.