That this will be a World Cup forever associated with the introduction of VAR is now beyond doubt. Monday night’s refereeing interventions from a TV studio in Moscow have already altered the tournament’s destiny. And as the stakes get higher and higher, the chaos and confusion can only deepen.
An Iranian penalty and equalising goal against Portugal, awarded after a lengthy delay, and a Spanish equaliser against Morocco, first given offside against Iago Aspas but then overruled by the all-seeing eye means that a weekend of last-16 matches has its first fixtures, but not as was expected until those dying minutes of technological confusion. Spain must travel to Moscow, where Russia, who may not have been too sorry to lose to Uruguay and thus return to the capital, while Portugal will face the Uruguayans in Sochi.
The latter tie has all the potential to be a true Saturday night video nasty, with the antics of both teams likely to put the multiscreen VAR crew fully through their paces. Two teams whose gifted forwards, themselves no angels, play in front of gangs made up largely of bruisers and serial fakers look deliciously matched for one of those matches where the referee’s whistle rings out like a James Galway recital.
It could be an occasion to match 1962’s Battle of Santiago between Chile or Italy, when two were sent off amid a flurry of punches and kicks, or 2006’s Battle of Nuremburg, when Portugal played the Netherlands in the last 16 and featured a record four red cards and 16 yellows. Never mind the quality of football, feel the controversy and let’s face it, that is always watchable.
Depending on your point of view, Cristiano Ronaldo’s participation in the fun and games would appear somewhat fortuitous. By far the longest delay in the Iran-Portugal’s series of televisual interventions came when referee Enrique Caceres was beckoned to his bespoke TV cubicle to view footage of Ronaldo’s clash with Morteza Pouraliganji. The accusation was a rabbit punch to the Iranian defender. Caceres certainly took his time to come to a yellow card decision that divided worldwide opinion. Does VAR get starstruck? It is a distinct possibility.
If that was controversial, then Iran’s late leveller of Ricardo Quaresma’s brilliant opener has sent the VAR luddites into even greater frenzy. “Complete and utter bollocks!!” was the social media verdict of Alan Shearer after Cedric Soares was ruled to have handballed in the area. In amidst the fury, it often appears that the TV experts forget that, just like they are called upon to do, VAR and a referee given a second look are asked to make judgement calls to which there is no definitive answer.
The whole process and end result are subject to human foibles, where perception is different from one individual to another. Such a series of subjective decisions are never going to receive anything like 100 percent approval. And in its haphazard fashion, VAR has already enriched the tournament, added the extra dimension of outrage that makes for unmissable viewing and a memorable World Cup. Few will recall Iran 1-1 Portugal as a footballing spectacle but its sequence of high-definition decision making will make it memorable, at least until a series of further VAR-fuelled outrages assume the agenda.
Amid all the chaos, the footballing reality of Group B is that both Spain and Portugal look vulnerable, with Morocco and Iran, decent but hardly elite sides, exposing weaknesses that higher quality opposition might exploit. Perhaps the Iberian neighbours were blunted by the 3-3 match they played out as a classic opener.
Spain look susceptible to pace in defence, where David de Gea’s understanding with Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique is less than telepathic and the midfield ahead of them lloking one-paced.
Andres Iniesta is running on fumes and so perhaps is Sergio Busquets.
Rather than the dominance of the 2008-2010-2012 triptych of Euro-World Cup-Euro glory, they closer resemble the teams that caretaker coach Fernando Hierro starred in during the 1990s and 2000s, undoubtedly talented but flaky and fully capable of mistakes.
Russia, whose effort against Uruguay in Samara was noticeably less lung-bursting in terms of distance covered than in their opening two victories, may not possess anything like Spain’s quality but their energy levels will almost certainly boost on Sunday.
And Portugal, after Ronaldo missed a second-half penalty, naturally awarded via technology’s intervention, allowed themselves to drop into the deadly side of the draw, where Brazil, Germany, France and perhaps even Argentina may lie in wait. At Euro 2016, the path to eventual glory took in Croatia, Poland and Wales before the final with France. This time, they will probably need VAR fully on their side to get through.