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VAR maelstrom at the heart of Morocco's World Cup exit

To say that VAR and the referee's officiating has overshadowed Morocco's World Cup campaign would be an understatement.

Coach Herve Renard refused to blame VAR too explicitly after the Atlas Lions drew 2-2 with Spain in Kaliningrad in their final Group B game on Monday, but that didn't hide the fact that coaching staff, players and supporters leave Russia with a deep sense of injustice.

VAR worked against Morocco on several occasions during the tournament, and even though the final decision - to rule Iago Aspas's 91st-minute equaliser onside - was a correct one, by then the damage had been done.

Nordin Amrabat, one of the stars of Morocco's campaign, summed up the mood when he confronted a television camera in the aftermath of that draw, drew the imaginary TV screen that has become ubiquitous at this tournament, and shouted 'VAR is bull----' at the cameraman.

It was emphatic, it was to the point, and it was a sentiment that was echoed across the terraces at the Kalingrad Stadium.

Even before Gerard Pique had gone in two-footed on Khalid Boutaib in the early stages, a decision which warranted neither a yellow card nor a second glance at the television screen according to referee Ravashan Irmatov, obscenities aimed at FIFA rained down from the Moroccan supporters.

Notably, the supporters were unhappy with the way the Atlas Lions' second group game - against Portugal in Moscow - was officiated.

FIFA's decision to name American referee Mark Geiger as the matchday official - only a week after Morocco had lost the 2026 World Cup to the United bid - fuelled the conspiracy theories, and Renard seethed after the match that his side had been victimised.

Notably, his gripe was with the referee's misuse - or non-use - of VAR.

"I will say it clearly, it's an injustice to be eliminated already," he told journalists ahead of the Spain game. "When we look at the play we created against Portugal, it's a total injustice.

"There was a major foul from Pepe in the opening minutes, then there was a hand from Pepe," he added. "It was exactly the same as [the penalty] Australia got to get a draw against Denmark.

"Maybe it's been forgotten, but it was clearly a voluntary handball," he continued.

"There was also a blatant penalty when Boutaib was charged down in the box, but there was no intervention from the officials.

"It's a total injustice."

Goalkeeper Munir agreed with Renard's complaints, going as far as to assert that it was the officiating that had sent Morocco out of the tournament early.

"I agree 100 percent with my coach," he began. "[The defeat by Portugal] was extremely unfair considering how we played, we deserved so much more.

"I remember when we arrived here we were told to be aware of VAR, with cameras that would keep an eye on all aspects of the game, all of the key movements.

"The referee could have used this, but in our case, it's been decisive and basically thrown us out of the tournament," he added. "We're talking about a couple of details in the match that hurt us a great deal."

The perceived injustices, the choice of referee and Renard's supporting comments before the Spain game ensured that, from the moment the Moroccan anthem ended, the supporters' attention turned to FIFA, who were barracked endlessly throughout the contest.

Pique's two-footed effort on Boutaib fuelled the siege mentality, as did a quick succession of bookings for Moroccan players midway through the first half.

It was perhaps fitting - if agonising - that the Lions' campaign would conclude with a VAR call that went against them, moments after substitute Youssef En-Nesyri's header had taken Morocco to the brink of all three points.

While Renard offered his sympathies towards referees and the challenges they face after the match, even he could not overlook a questionable decision in the build-up to Aspas's equaliser.

"The only question I'd like to raise is on the second equalising goal, we expect a corner on one side and it's played on the other side," he told journalists, as per Goal. "I can't say if this is allowed. If it is not allowed then there is a major mistake.

"If it is allowed, we checked [the offside call] with VAR so we won't challenge, but are we allowed to use a corner to take it on one side when the ball went out on the other?

"I checked with the referees but their door was closed."

It wasn't the only dubious call involved with that final goal, with the ball appearing to go out of play during the build-up.

Morocco playmaker Younes Belhanda was less diplomatic.

"It's frustrating, because we now know that VAR is just for the big teams," he told RMC.

"There was a handball by [Spain defender Gerard] Pique that wasn't whistled. There's a corner which is taken from the other side. It's for the big teams, VAR."

Ultimately, while VAR may have had an unwanted influence over Morocco's campaign in Russia, it doesn't detract from the fact that the team have impressed neutrals during their three World Cup matches.

They enjoyed more possession and attempts against the European champions, and were only denied a win over 2010 world champions Spain at the death. Those performances were testament to the sterling work that Renard has done since he took over in 2016.

However, for all the subsequent quality and controversy, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Morocco's World Cup prospects were severely stunted the moment they lost the initiative in their opener against Iran.

Carlos Queiroz's side have subsequently demonstrated how well drilled and organised they are, but they were vulnerable during the first 20 minutes of Morocco's opener, although the Atlas Lions failed to capitalise.

After that, they ceded the momentum, and Aziz Bouhaddouz's late own goal was an early fatal blow in a campaign that never truly recovered as it had threatened to.

This VAR maelstrom has enveloped the Lions' campaign, but that early failure must not be forgotten.

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.

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