Amid ongoing VAR debate, Chile put aside frustration to beat Cameroon
MOSCOW -- On a night that could have ended up being defined by three letters -- VAR -- it's probably a good thing that ultimately it was a "V" and an "A" that made all the difference. "V" -- as in Vidal (Arturo) -- who kangarooed at the far post to tuck in a cross from the "A" -- as in Alexis (Sanchez) -- past Cameroon goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa.
There were nine minutes left at the time, and the goal saw a heavily pro-Chile crowd -- the total attendance was 33,492 in a stadium that holds 45,360 -- erupt with relief as much as ecstasy. That's what happens when your emotions get put through the spin cycle of a demented washing machine possessed by Nosferatu.
Those present had seen Chile dominate early -- Eduardo Vargas hit the post inside of a minute, and then Jose Fuenzalida, after a delicate "sombrero," forced a fine save from Ondoa -- only for Cameroon to keep them out.
Supporters then groaned at two further squandered chances -- Fuenzalida wasted a delightful buildup by failing to carpe his diem, and then Vargas, again, couldn't convert from close range -- in a first half that, as Cameroon boss Hugo Broos would later say, could have easily seen the Chileans 3-0 up.
Then, just before half-time, Vidal's pinpoint through ball found Vargas in mid-stride, and the striker stroked it into the back of the net. The fans roared into life; their luck had changed. Gary Medel sprinted a lung-bursting 40 yards to join his teammates in celebration.
But then referee Damir Skomina signaled for the video assistant referee.
"It was our first time with the VAR, and while they had explained to us how it worked before the game, the fact is that in the heat of the moment you're so concentrated, you don't think about it," said Vidal. "You just wonder what's going on."
What for Vidal was confusion was, for Broos, a glimmer of hope.
"I saw the referee signaling, and I just started hoping," he said. "They disallowed it, so happy for me."
The decision itself was close. So close that, in the pre-VAR era, we wouldn't blame an assistant for getting it wrong. But this is a different time and the replays -- with the help of horizontal lines drawn over video -- showed that, yes, Vargas was offside.
After what felt like an eternity -- it probably wasn't -- Skomina signaled the goal had been struck off, which led to incredulity among Chile's number. Players often complain when decisions don't go their way, but this was different: This was justice delayed, which feels like justice denied.
At least, that's the impression the Chile fans gave. And while La Roja's second half began with a huddle and chest-thumping from Medel in the middle of the pitch, Juan Antonio Pizzi's crew were rather more muted after the break.
"We are conditioned to having an immediate emotional reaction in football," Pizzi said after the match. "We went from a high of having finally broken the deadlock to, 20 seconds later, going into the dressing room at 0-0. Players play on emotion, they channel it, it's what drives them. When you have that sort of emotional comedown, it can have a major effect in the dressing room. It did for us, anyway."
That's why, to spark things up, Pizzi threw on Sanchez for Edson Puch and, shortly thereafter, Leonardo Valencia for Fuenzalida. It took a short while, but then Cameroon began to wobble. And Vidal's goal finally broke the ice.
There was no looking back. And at the very end, Sanchez blew the chance to make it 2-0 (and become Chile's all-time leading goal scorer as well), only for Vargas to smack home the rebound. But, as he wheeled away to celebrate, he spotted the assistant's flag raised in the air.
Vargas sprinted over wide-eyed but, in the VAR world, there's no sense in appealing these situations. Already underway was a review of the call which apparently had to do with Sanchez's position in the buildup. Skomina drew his imaginary TV in the air but, this time, there was less trepidation. The match was over. Chile had won and deservedly so.
Still, goal difference matters and VAR had again overturned an assistant's decision, except the second time it was to allow the goal. Vargas made history as the first player ever to have a goal taken away and a goal given in such circumstances, not that you imagine he particularly cares.
Chile were impressive for most of the game -- both with and without Sanchez -- while Cameroon, as Broos pointed out, likely paid a price for nerves.
"That, and the fact that they're some 40 places above us in the FIFA rankings," he said afterwards.
It was left to Pizzi to get philosophical at the end.
"VAR is new, this is a trial; it's being evaluated," he said. "Sure, we weren't happy when the goal was disallowed, but in the end it was the right decision, however close it was. Let's wait and see what happens; let's let them iron out what needs to be ironed out.
"Many times in the past we've complained because we thought there were injustices in football," he said. "We can't complain now if it brings us more justice, can we? Let's find out if it can do that and then we'll draw our conclusions."
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.