VAR creates as much confusion as clarity in Confederations Cup final
SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia -- In the 61st minute of the Confederations Cup final, Serbian referee Milorad Mazic was given the opportunity to transform elite-level football and drag it into the 21st century alongside every other major sport, but in front of a global TV audience of millions watching Germany defeat Chile 1-0, he blew it.
With one simple decision, Mazic inflicted huge damage to the credibility of FIFA's video assistant referee (VAR) system and left those watching in a state of bewilderment after he chose not to dismiss Chile's Gonzalo Jara for an elbow to Germany forward Timo Werner.
Mazic had missed the initial incident. Indeed, many inside Saint Petersburg Stadium didn't see Jara's foul on Werner, who appeared to go down easily and theatrically after a collision on the far touchline.
The VAR called Mazic to the touchline to review the incident, and replays -- which were available in the media seats but not to the paying spectators -- clearly showed that Jara thrust his left elbow into Werner's face.
As Mazic studied the incident -- three minutes passed before his decision became clear -- Jara looked anxiously at Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, bearing the look of a man who knew he was facing a red card. Yet having watched it closely, from three camera angles that did little to support any suggestion that Jara's contact was accidental, Mazic returned to the pitch and issued a yellow card.
And in that moment, he ensured that every use of VAR from this point on risks being compromised, because everyone will remember the night when a referee allowed a player to stay on the pitch after it was evident that he elbowed an opponent.
"I didn't see it on the field of play; it was quite a mix-up and the VAR was consulted," said Germany coach Joachim Low after his team's victory. "But I saw it before I came into the press conference, and it could have been worthy of a red because it was an elbow in the face.
"If the referee has seen the incident, he could, and should, have red-carded him."
But Mazic didn't and, in the process, triggered confusion and also anger among fellow officials. Mark Halsey, a former Premier League referee, gave his blunt assessment of the incident on Twitter.
"What on earth is going on with VAR?" Halsey tweeted. "It's a shambles, their [sic] is a protocol in place, but officials not adhering to it."
VAR is not supposed to be used to clear up yellow-card incidents; it is there to clarify offside, penalty incidents, goals and red-card offences. So in theory, Mazic could either take no action or send Jara off. The yellow card was inexplicable on numerous levels, primarily because it was a clear red card and precisely the kind of unseen, off-the-ball foul that the VAR system is supposed to deal with.
Only Mazic will know why he issued a yellow card. Good luck if you expect to hear his explanation anytime soon.
Football officials will always wrestle with the idea of a third eye to assist their decision-making.
Unlike in other sports, such as tennis or cricket, many decisions are subjective. In tennis, the ball was on the line or it wasn't; in cricket, the batsman either hit the ball with the bat or he didn't, and technology enables the officials to know for certain either way.
Now an elbow is an elbow, or so most would assume, but there is the matter of intent, and that is ultimately a subjective decision of the referee. This is also the case when a foul is committed in the penalty area, or when it appears to have been a foul, only for replays to show that contact may or may not have forced the attacker to go down.
One referee will judge an incident one way, and another will see it differently, but some moments really should be clear-cut, even when opinion is involved, and Jara's elbow on Werner was one of those.
For Mazic to watch replays of it and then decide it was not a foul that justified a red card is simply bizarre. Any referee could miss it during live play, without the opportunity to see it again, but officials now have the chance to review and take time to make the correct decision.
The Confederations Cup has not been a good advert for VAR, though. There have been countless instances of VAR being used too slowly, too late or incorrectly, and it clearly needs work to become a successful and reliable feature of the game.
And having the VAR booth so close to the two technical areas, wedged between the rival coaching teams, is a recipe for chaos, as was highlighted during the second half of this game. Players use the hand gesture for VAR when urging referees to reconsider their decision -- maybe it will replace the imaginary yellow card -- and coaches run toward the officials in the booth.
This happened after Chile's Alexis Sanchez ran into Sebastian Rudy on 76 minutes. Mazic correctly ignored Chile's penalty appeals, but the Chilean bench went crazy, for want of a better word.
Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi and several members of his staff sprinted toward the VAR, chaos ensued, and Mazic had to come across and briefly assess what had happened on the touchline before continuing with the game.
For VAR to work successfully, it must be located remotely, away from the inside of the stadium, with communication done via technology, to prevent managers from berating the officials who sit with the television screens.
VAR is a flawed system, but it can get better and become integral to the game once the problems are resolved.
But the biggest problem -- subjectivity -- will never go away. Mazic proved that in Saint Petersburg by failing to send off Jara, and until FIFA finds a way to employ robots as referees, VAR will always create as much confusion as clarity.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_