As the worldwide debate over the pros and cons of VAR reach fever pitch, I can’t stop thinking about my interview two years ago with the legendary Denis Law who was in no doubt that video technology must be used.
The Lawman’s view was echoed this afternoon Live on TalkSport by another Scottish hero, Gordon Strachan, who insisted that most former professionals share the same view that VAR is a no brainer.
This is all a far cry from Alan Shearer’s furious TV rant after last night’s shambolic officiating of the decisive Portugal-Iran.
The former England marksman and Premier League’s all-time leading goalscorer let rip after Iran were awarded a duly converted penalty for a dubious handball offence late in the game against Portugal. It crucially meant Cristiano Ronaldo’s team conceded top spot to Spain, who ironically secured the all-important point they needed courtesy of a VAR assisted equaliser that denied Morocco deep into injury time.
“Well that’s the closest I’ve been to swearing on live TV! What I really wanted to say is that VAR is complete and utter b******!!”, tweeted the BBC pundit after telling presenter Gary Lineker and a live TV audience how disgusted he was with the referee’s change of mind after being prompted by VAR to watch the replays. “That is nonsense. It is utter nonsense. A ludicrous decision,” was Shearer’s more measured response from the Match of the Day studio.
But Shearer is not supported by many of his former professionals when he continually argues against the use of VAR at the World Cup. To put it bluntly, most ex-players disagree with the former England marksman when it comes to accepting the role of Video Assistant Referees.
Former Scotland manager Strachan, one of British football’s most experienced and accomplished players, spoke for the majority on TalkSport when he insisted ex-professionals are overwhelmingly in favour of VAR.
“Alan Shearer has a platform to get his voice heard but that does not make him right,” fired the fiery red head, whose honest, incisive insight was both fascinating and hugely entertaining.
“I like VAR if it means I haven’t got to look at Maradona, sat there with his big, fat face, thinking he’s the king!”
“Most ex players I talk to are in favour of VAR and so am I,” added Strachan. “If the referee watches the replays and still gets the decision wrong that is him making a mistake and you can’t blame VAR for that.”
For me, that in essence neatly sums up the whole debate. But that does not hide the fact that VAR is effectively being trialled at this World Cup in what is a huge gamble that could backfire spectacularly if referees continue to make mistakes.
As the stakes get higher similar errors will only magnify the debate. Heaven forbid that the final is wrongly decided by a controversial VAR verdict.
Many England fans have already expressed their fear that VAR will inevitably cost England dear at some stage. But that is just the negative mindset instilled by so many years of hurt. The irony here is that England’s most infamous failure was inspired by the cheating ‘Hand of God’ goal scored by Maradona at the 1986 World Cup. There is absolutely no doubt that Diego would have been yellow carded and his ‘goal’ disallowed with the benefit of video technology.
VAR is here to stay. Of that I have zero doubt. But that does not mean we are even close to getting this right.
Why VAR will be a huge topic of debate for the foreseeable future is how and when it is used. At this World Cup it seems that the rules are evolving as we go, with players and coaches continually demanding assistance at every opportunity.
The problem in my mind is that FIFA and every national body around the world have all taken too long to trial technology. And now we are in such a rush to catch up with other sports that mistakes are inevitable.
More than two years ago I remember interviewing my former Manchester United hero Denis Law, who was in absolute no doubt that VAR was both essential and inevitable. And that is the view the resonates today with so many ex players, whatever Alan Shearer may say from the comfort of the MOTM sofa.
Shearer is a often a voice of reason and I admire his thoughtful sports science documentary investigating the potentially devastating link between heading the ball and dementia. But I think he is on the wrong side of the debate when it comes to VAR.
As for the Lawman’s views on the subject, this has been consistent for more than two years now. VAR must be used to get decisions right, insists Denis. And it was his passionate argument for using video technology to stamp out pushing and pulling at corners that will resonate most strongly now, especially with England fans.
It is impossible not to visualise Harry Kane being wrestled to the ground, on numerous occasions in England’s two opening matches, when you hear Scotland’s greatest ever goalscorer insist: “You can’t do that, it’s a penalty. If you grab someone in the penalty box it’s a penalty. And I just wonder why they are not doing their job.”
That was the Lawman’s passionate declaration two years ago. Clearly the referee and the VAR officials were not doing their job when Tunisia pushed the boundaries in England’s opening World Cup match. But happily, common sense and VAR prevailed against Panama on Sunday.
Equally, Law’s prophetic call for more penalties has already well and truly been answered in Russia. With only half the matches completed we have already seen 20 penalties awarded, more than the previous record of 18 for the whole tournament in 2002.
That has been cause for celebration for England with Kane’s double from the spot against Panama sending him soaring to the front of the race for the Golden Boot.
Last night's foul on Harry Kane is so much better with WWE commentary pic.twitter.com/Mj9RmpeoIn
— Deluded Brendan (@DeludedBrendan) June 19, 2018