#TBT Mexican Heartbreak

The date? It’s the 27th June 2010. The place? The FIFA FanFest in the Zocalo, Mexico City. The time? Just before 10am in Mexico. Just before 4pm in South Africa. The model? Well, that’s me. Fully kitted out in my England top, waiting anxiously for the World Cup match between Germany and England to kick off. One of very few Englishmen or women there and well outnumbered by the Germans. As usual. But we are optimistic. You know. World War II, 1966 and all that. It’s the first knockout stage. The winner goes on. The loser goes home. The tension could be cut with a knife. But we have truly moved on from the war. No one actually has a knife. Silly walks were kept to minimum.

The game didn’t get off to a great start as far as England was concerned. With little more than half an hour on the clock, we were 2-0 down. And that, at this level of sport, normally means the game is as good as over. Especially if you’re up against the Germans. They rarely let a strong winning position go. Except in the war, of course. But we’ve moved on from the war. Unless you voted UKIP, in which case you’re still desperately fighting it, I guess.

But we are English. And if there’s one thing we English do, we keep fighting the good fight. We got one back in the 37th minute. Game on! Less than two minutes later, we scored again. Delerium broke out in one small 12″ x 12″ patch of the Zocalo. We were level. Frank Lampard thundered in a drive from outside the area. It smashed against the underside of the bar and bounced a good yard over the line. A fabulous goal. One that Lampard would remember till his dying day.

I saw the goal. The 40,500 fans in the stadium saw it. Both sets of players saw it. Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people watching TV around the world saw it. The referee and his two linesmen? Alas, to everyone’s astonishment, they did not appear to see it. The goal was not given. That square foot of Zocalo turned from delerium to dismay, disappointment and disgust. Germany went on to win the game. Although, obviously, they did not win the war. But we’ve moved on from the war. No need to mention it at all, really.

There was at the time, and had been for quite a while, a very public argument that video replays should be used at the top level of football to help the referees. To prevent howling decisions just like this one. If video replays had been utilised in South Africa, then Lampard’s goal would have counted. And who knows what the final result might then have been? There are far too many terrible refereeing decisions in football. That is not in dispute. And after that game is South Africa, pretty much everyone wanted video action replays.

This season, the video action replay assistant, or VAR for short, has finally been rolled out across Europe. It’s not used in every game, but has been put into action in this season’s FA Cup. Everyone is happy, right? Nope. No one is ever happy. Ever. Only one decision has been contentious so far. Otherwise, VAR has helped to produce the right result every time. But it’s taking a little while to get to the right result. Football is a fast flowing game. People don’t like it being stopped for three or four minutes while the ref has a chat with the guy behind the video monitor.

I agree. It’s a problem. We need VAR, but it needs to be less intrusive. The problem, as I see it, is a simple one to solve. The current VAR system is based on the premise that the referee on the pitch is the sole decision maker. That he absolutely must have the final word. So it is he who must request guidance from the VAR assistant for something that may or may not have happened. Which means stopping the game. It is he who must make the decision, based on the information provided by the VAR assistant during what could be a lengthy conversation. Which means keeping the game stopped.

VAR should work like this. VAR should be operated by a co-referee. Either of them can make a decision. The ref on the pitch makes calls as he sees them in real time. The VAR ref makes overiding calls when he sees them replayed. The ref on the pitch should never call for VAR assistance. It should entirely be up to the VAR ref to interrupt when the occasion demands it. And only then for an incident which directly impacts a goal, penalty or red card and the video replay evidence is absolutely crystal clear. He should ignore all grey areas. Anything subjective at all should be beyond his juristiction.

There should also be a time limit. The VAR ref must indicate to the pitch ref with 60 seconds of played time from the incident concerned (longer allowed if ball has gone out of play) that he is making a decision. It would be a nice idea for a big red VAR light to come one to alert the crowd that something is afoot. The ref should then, and only then, stop play. The pitch ref cannot overrule the VAR ref’s decision and should simply implement it. If the incident is for the issuance of a red card for dangerous play, then the ref should wait for the ball to go out of play before dealing with it.

Now picture the scene, if you will. The date? July 18th 2018. The place? The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The occasion? The World Cup final between Germany and England. It’s nil-nil and we’re well into injury time of extra time. The ref has checked his watch twice and is ready to blow and send the match to a penalty shoot out. England surge forward for one last chance of a winner. It comes to Harry Kane, just outside the area. He thumps a piledriver towards goal. The crowd inhale. You hear the smack of leather on metal as it cannons on the inside on the bar and down. Goal? Goal! No goal. England protest. The Germans break, and seconds later Ozil slots the ball into the English net to win the World Cup. Teutonic delight abounds.

And a big red light comes on in the heavens. Silence engulfs the stadium. The ref listens to his earpiece. Eighty thousand heartbeats echo along the stands. A billion eyes fixate on the screen in front of them. Twenty two players silently pray. The whistle is blown. The ref makes the gesture that rewards the prayers of one team and condemns their opponents to a lifetime of atheism. England have won the world cup! Oh, the drama. The sweet, sweet taste of karma.

Well. I can dream, can’t I? That’s all we England fans really have, you know. Dreams of glory. Wonderful dreams that we all know will all too soon be shattered before our eyes. Oh, and we have the war. But we’ve moved on from the war. Really, we have.


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