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VAR Proves its Worth in Champions League

Despite protests from Porto fans (and stars), VAR did its job in last night’s quarterfinal

Liverpool v Porto - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg
If only, Sadio, if only.
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Walking out of last year’s 3-1 defeat in the Champions League final, there was one predominant feeling above all others. More than the heartbreak and disappointment. More than the crushed hopes and dreams. More than the regret at the missed opportunity. That feeling? Injustice.

Sergio Ramos got away with murder—literally, in the case of Loris Karius’s career—swaying the tie in Real Madrid’s favor. The defender committed two red card challenges, cleverly out of view of the match officials. But we saw it on video, clear as day. Clear as Karius’s concussed vision wasn’t.

The same feelings of injustice could be said about Liverpool’s other recent European final defeat, after Sevilla handled the ball, seemingly at will, in Liverpool’s box time and again.

If Porto fans (or, players as the case may be) feel a similar strain of injustice, they shouldn’t. Porto benefitted from two potential penalty reviews for handball, and in two situations where no one in the ground was calling for it in real time. Both handball shouts were denied, rightly, but they were reviewed. In the incident with Trent Alexander-Arnold, it was clear that the young fullback had no time to react to Alisson’s attempted punch. And with Dejan Lovren? It would seem a tad unfair to make defenders amputate their arms at their shoulders.

Of course, there was one other incident on the pitch: Salah’s potential red card.

Under UEFA rules, goals, mistaken identity, penalty decisions, and direct red card incidents are up for review.

While the freeze frame of Salah’s incident looks to be a red, the game is not played one frame at a time. Salah, who was in the midst of being pulled and kicked by about three defenders, stumbled clumsily into a defender (it might have been unintentional, but seriously get those studs down, mate). It looked worse than it was, and while a yellow might have been understandable under the circumstances, it wasn’t a straight red. Further, the ref had a full view of the incident, and judged it not to be card-worthy at the time. This is somewhat analogous to Fernandinho’s elbowing incident in the other game (plus or minus the intentionality of elbowing an on-the-ground Harry Kane).

My point about all of this is that VAR should help correct the most glaring errors of matches, especially big and important ones with millions of euros and/or shiny silver things at stake. While some Porto fans (or players) may go to their graves swearing that Salah should have been sent off and they should have been awarded both penalties, there was at least a system in place to double check. Retroactive punishment (or lack thereof, in Ramos’ case) doesn’t do anyone any good.

There are problems with VAR. Of course there are. It’s still a new technology, and it’s being run by humans who are inherently flawed. And biased. Not biased as in “UEFA wants Liverpool to win” (though it would be great if that were true), but biased as in “one man’s red is another woman’s yellow.”

As I wrote last summer, in light of this new technology, some rules will likely need to be rewritten. Some degree of subjectivity is fine, maybe even necessary when viewing the game at full pace. But when we slow things down, we can see what looks like an unfortunate coming together is actually quite malicious (and vice versa). What looks like a ball-to-hand incident, might actually be a lot more intentional than it first appears.

We football fans are a demanding lot. We want to keep the game pure, to keep the “spirit of the game,” but we also want the decisions to be correct. And if VAR is introduced, we want it to agree with our (often misinformed) perceptions of the match every single time. And we want it quickly. And we want it to be perfect and quick from the first use. Obviously all of this is impossible.

Regardless, I think VAR proved its worth last night. Those handballs (or red card) were never going to be given at full pace, and no real rules were broken or advantage gained by Liverpool by leaving the calls on the pitch stand.

And hopefully next time a Spanish team tries to handle the ball in the box, or, I don’t know, tries to rip Salah’s arm clean off, VAR will work for us then as well.

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