Spain’s and Italy’s champions are eliminated from the major European competition.
We’ve reached the 91st minute at the Etihad Stadium. The ball falls to the feet of Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus who, with one neat first touch and shimmy, perfectly caresses the ball down low to the left of Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
The familiar raucous celebrations of the home side begin. The Brazilian striker has just scored a stoppage-time winner to claim all three points. Only he hasn’t. Flashbacks of last season’s infamous Champions League quarter-final ensue.
Even the most ardent of Manchester City’s rivals have to feel a twinge of sympathy for them. The most innocuous of handballs by Aymeric Laporte has ruled out a goal that could prove pivotal come the end of the season – only one point separated the two juggernauts of Manchester City and Liverpool at the end of the last campaign.
With the crowd now deflated, many are pondering just how beneficial VAR will be to the beautiful game.
Will it strip the game of excitement? Is there now any reason to celebrate a goal before the invisible adjudicators many miles away scrutinise the build-up with alacrity, desperately trying to find the slightest misdemeanour that justifies disallowing the goal?
Perhaps we all mistakenly thought the grass was greener – just ask Sergio Aguero and Pep Guardiola, whose premature embrace of raw emotion and joy ended on a sour note.
On the other hand, football is now a commodity. Given the influx of money in the sport, surely it is only right that we attempt to achieve maximum fairness in every decision, regardless of the impact on the excitement of the game?
After all, it is often only the slightest of margins that separate winning from losing, and the ever-growing global commercialisation of football means that winning is now big money. Imagine having to face the perils of relegation – both on a financial and personal level – on the back of a clear and obvious error that could have been detected by VAR.
These contrasting arguments are very legitimate concerns, but the good news is that a compromise can be reached. We need only to look towards how video technology is used in two other sports: tennis and cricket.
Both sports adopt a form of video review – Hawk-Eye and the Decision Review System, respectively – to ensure that most mistakes by the umpires are rectified.
However, a crucial distinction between these systems and football’s VAR remains: in the former, each participant or team is limited to the amount of times they can resort to this issue.
This is a feature the stakeholders in football need to consider implementing if they are to maintain a balance between maintaining the fundamental excitement of the sport and reaching an equitable outcome.
Say each team has one challenge to the VAR per match. The final decision could lie with either the team’s captain or the manager, with obvious input from the players close to the alleged incident.
This would ensure the fairness of the game in the high-money stakes of elite level professional football – imagine the vitriol of abuse from the fans and the look of scorn from their team-mates when a player who clearly dived encouraged his team to use a precious review on such a blatant act of simulation. Diving and other forms of cheating would still be largely deterred.
Importantly, the use of VAR would not necessarily be limited to the scoring of a goal, the awarding of a penalty, a straight red card, or cases of mistaken identity. Teams would have discretion to use their one review on any decision they see fit, whether that be a second yellow card, or a dubious free kick awarded to a team with a renowned free kick taker.
There might be drawbacks. What about those situations where a team has no idea that there was a foul that lead to a goal or another crucial moment in the game?
The lack of an appeal from Spurs defenders towards Jesus’ last-minute winner suggests that even they weren’t aware of the slight handball in the build-up to the goal.
In such a scenario, however, it might be pondered whether such decisions should perhaps be left on the field of play. If a touch is that slight, or contact that minimal, it seems reasonable to let these decisions stand.
Finally, and on a related point, it seems unavoidable that this suggestion will not provide a panacea to every injustice in the world of football.
There will be some instances where a team has used their solitary review, and a blatant mistake is made by the on-field official.
But these are likely to be very rare scenarios. And it is certainly a price worth paying to keep the flame of instantaneous passion lingering both in the stadium and in front of our TV screens.