Written by Mark Docherty
Thursday night’s World Cup qualification playoff saw Northern Ireland’s chances of getting to Russia take a massive hit after their 0-1 defeat to Switzerland. While the overall performance from the Ulstermen was below par, the game was undoubtedly overshadowed by the referee’s decision to give a penalty to the Swiss for a very questionable handball by Corey Evans. Ricardo Rodriguez scored the spot-kick and the goal went on to be the difference between the two sides on the night, and could have a huge say on which set of fans travels to Russia this summer.
Northern Ireland were justifiably incensed at the decision and the impact it could have on their campaign, although they received little sympathy from those south of the Irish border. They can remember all too well when a similar incident prevented them from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as a Thierry Henry handball went unpunished in the Republic’s playoff against France, ending their chances of qualification. Northern Ireland got little support from England fans after the game either, as the ghost of Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the 2010 World Cup knockout match against Germany acted as a reminder to them that there is no justice in the world of football. Doubtless, supporters of Scotland and Wales, as well as every other nation around the globe, will be able to point to occasions on which they were hard done by. The message from all sides: ‘stop complaining. We all get bad decisions from time to time.’
While it is true that every side will get their share of good and bad luck in the long term, surely something can be done to put the fates of players and supporters all over the world into the hands of more than fortune. Supporters who have paid a large portion of their weekly income to watch their team play will take little consolation from being told that decisions will even out eventually. While football is far from an exact science, it does not take a genius to see that officials have too much of a margin for error at the moment and often have more of a say in the result of a match than any one player. The fact is there is just too much money in the game and too much rests on modern football to allow refereeing decisions to potentially define a team’s season. The consequences of a nation failing to qualify for a major tournament can be catastrophic, not only for the players and manager but also for the economy, while it is not uncommon for club sides to get liquidated on the back of relegations, especially in the lower league. With the stakes so high, referees cannot be expected to make all their decisions alone.
Fortunately inroads are being made to offer officials some much needed support. Several leagues around the world have introduced video assistant referees for goals, penalties, red cards, and cases of mistaken identity. If a potential error has been made in one of these areas then the referee can initiate a review of the decision, which could lead to it being reversed. The reason that the VAR can only have an input in certain areas is so that the match does not keep stopping, which would reduce the flow of games, and only comes into play in situations which could have a direct impact on the result. While there have been some teething problems in the first months with the new system, on the whole it has been successful. The highest profile matches VARs have been used in are international friendlies. It had very little impact in England’s recent friendly with Germany, but had a marked effect on Spain’s match against France in March, as VAR was used to disallow a goal for France and award a goal to Spain, leading to the Spaniards winning 2-0. Friday’s match was the first time the new system had been used in the UK but, as events at Windsor Park show, they are very much needed elsewhere.
The logistics make it unlikely that we will see video assistant referees throughout the EFL as most matches do not have enough camera angles in the lower leagues to make a video referee effective, but all Championship, Premier League, and international grounds have the facilities required for it to work. The current situation is that VARs are being tested to ensure that there are no major problems before they are eventually introduced in the biggest games in the world. However, we have seen enough already to know that they will improve football for the travelling fans, as well as for television audiences. It is inevitable that VARs will be brought into the Premier League and the World Cup in the imminent future, so how many more sets of fans do we need to see suffer on behalf of referees in the meantime. The process needs to be sped up so that all major competitions have video referees by the beginning of next season. How many more Northern Irelands do there have to be before FIFA pulls their finger out and solves the problem?