The Most Controversial VAR Decisions at the 2022 FIFA World Cup

2022 FIFA World Cup

The 2022 FIFA World Cup will go down in history as one of the best in terms of the quality of competition. But will the infamy of its controversies overpower its success?

The footballing world has welcomed many new technological developments in recent times. Its goal is to make decision-making more accurate and provide a better experience for players and fans alike. These technologies include the video assistant referee (VAR), semi-automated offside technology (SAOT) and sensor-equipped footballs, all used extensively during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. 

VAR uses video replays to assist referees with on-field decision-making during football matches. The International Football Association Board (IFAB)—the body that lays down the rules for football, i.e. the Laws of the Game—approved the technology in 2016. FIFA then approved its use for the first time in the 2018 World Cup.

While it has helped improve decision-making, VAR has sparked several controversies since its introduction. Here, we have listed some of the most controversial judgments made by VARs at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Japan v Spain (Group Stage)

The World Cup starts with 32 teams divided into eight groups of four teams. Each team plays the other teams in its group once. After the matches, the two teams with the most points qualify for the knockout stage (round of 16). If you win, you get three points; a draw receives one point, and if you lose, you get zero.

Japan, Spain, Germany and Costa Rica were part of Group E. On the day of their last Group Stage matches, Japan played against Spain, whereas Germany played against Costa Rica. At the time, Spain led the group with four points, followed by Japan and Costa Rica with three and Germany with one.

Japan scored in the 51st minute of the game against Spain to take a 2-1 lead. What raised eyebrows was the assist (the final pass before a goal is scored) and how it looked like the ball had gone out of play. According to Law 9 in the Laws of the Game, “The ball is out of play when it has wholly passed over the goal line or touchline on the ground or in the air.” VAR immediately checked whether this law held in that situation but couldn’t provide conclusive evidence. Therefore, the initially disallowed goal stood, and Japan held off Spain until the end to win the tie. FIFA released the footage they used to overturn the decision only 20 hours after the incident.

This decision was controversial because the outcome of this tie led to the elimination of Germany from the World Cup, despite their win against Costa Rica.

Poland v Argentina (Group Stage)

Poland and Argentina faced off in their final games in Group C. The match had high stakes—whichever team won would qualify for the knockouts. At 0-0 in the 36th minute, Argentinian football player Julian Alvarez crossed the ball into the penalty box, where Lionel Messi jumped to head it into the goal. While trying to punch the ball away, Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny’s hand made slight contact with Messi’s face. This led to Messi heading the ball off-target, followed by his teammates appealing for a penalty.

According to Law 12, if a player commits an offense against the opposition inside the penalty box, they get a penalty. The referee initially waved away the appeals, given that contact was minimal and did not prevent Messi from heading the ball. VAR should ideally not have intervened, but it did. Upon further inspection, the referee overturned his original decision, and Argentina was awarded a penalty kick. 

Szczesny even bet Messi EUR100 (US$108.7) that the referee won’t award a penalty. He lost the bet but redeemed himself by saving the penalty, finding a way out of the “Messi” situation.

Portugal v Uruguay (Group Stage)

Penalties are awarded to a team if an opposition player makes hand contact with the ball inside the penalty box. But IFAB recently updated its guidelines, stating examples of when a player should not be penalized for a handball, even if their arm is away from the body. One of those specific examples is when “arm position is for support when falling or when getting up from the ground”.

Uruguay played Portugal in their second match in Group H. Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes scored his maiden World Cup goal to give them a 1-0 lead in the 54th minute. Uruguay was on the attack throughout the game, but in the dying minutes, Uruguay’s Jose Gimenez’s hand made contact with the ball inside the penalty box. The contact happened while he was trying to plant his hand on the ground to support his fall, which shouldn’t be penalized according to the rules. The referee initially didn’t award a penalty, but after the VAR check, the penalty was wrongfully awarded to Portugal.

Fernandes scored his second and Portugal’s winning goal, sealing the country’s place in the round of 16.

Belgium v Croatia (Group Stage)

In a match that was a decider for the knockouts, Croatia was awarded a penalty in the 15th minute of the game. When Croatian skipper Luka Modrić was ready to take the penalty, the referee was called to the VAR monitor to check for a possible offside in the build-up to the penalty. 

According to Law 11, a player is in an offside position if  “any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half” and “any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent”. Also, “the hands and arms of all players, including the goalkeepers, are not considered. For the purposes of determining offside, the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit.”

The SAOT—introduced for situations like this—is an AI tool to help referees and VAR officials make faster, more reproducible and more accurate decisions, specially designed to detect offsides. It aided VAR and the referee in concluding that Croatia’s Dejan Lovren was, in fact, in an offside position in the build-up. The penalty decision was overturned, and the score remained 0-0 throughout the match, resulting in Belgium’s elimination.

What made the call so controversial was that Lovren’s shirt sleeve—not his head, body or foot, but his sleeve—was in an offside position. The part of his sleeve that was the culprit was probably slimmer than Italy’s chances of winning this World Cup.

Had VAR existed back in the day, iconic moments—like “the hand of God” goal by Argentinian Diego Maradona against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals—that shaped football into the sport it is today wouldn’t have happened. The ball, which was seemingly headed in the goal, was punched into it by Maradona’s hand. But there were no provisions to review it back then. The referees and linesmen found nothing wrong while witnessing it live, so the goal stood. 

VAR would’ve scrutinized the goal using multiple replays and reviews. It would’ve concluded that it was, in fact, a handball by Maradona and the decision would’ve been overturned. Yes, the technological developments introduced in football have improved the accuracy of decision-making, but they also bring down the spirit of the sport and the indomitable spirit of humans.

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