Last Sunday afternoon Brazil saw the culmination of the majority of its state championships. These competitions are somewhat of an anachronism, left over from a time when travelling across the country for a football match would have been impossible. Nowadays they serve only to clog up the calendar for the big clubs and line the pockets of the bosses of the state football federations. Many Brazilians see them as something that should be resigned to the history books.
This time around, however, there was a brief glimpse of shimmering modernity amongst the finals of these outdated competitions. In the Campeonato Pernambucano, the competition in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, Sport Recife took on Salgueiro of Série C and it was the first game in Brazilian football history to make use of a video referee.
The subject of video assistants is just as controversial here as it is in the rest of the world; there are those who argue passionately both for and against the introduction of the new technology. But the more time that passes the more it appears inevitable that those who are against will be swept aside by the desires of the authorities.
As with any new technology in any area of society there will, though, be early ups and downs as officiating teams take their time to get used to it.
The use of video assistants in the Club World Cup, for instance, was extremely problematic. In the semi-final game between Japan’s Kashima Antlers and Atlético Nacional of Colombia referee Viktor Kassai used a pitch-side monitor to award the Japanese side a penalty, but even after the game, and hundreds of slow motions replays, there were long discussions about whether he had made the right decision.
In another test during the international friendly between France and Spain in March, however, it was a fantastic success. The referee corrected two crucial, incorrect offside decisions that would have had a significant bearing on the result.
Unfortunately, in its first outing in Brazil, the result bore more similarity to the unsuccessful trial in Japan than the successful one in France.
Sport had dominated most of the game and were 1-0 to the good going into injury time at the end of the second half. In the 93rd minute Salgueiro came forward for one last-gasp attempt at levelling things up before the second leg, to be played at their home stadium in June.
Winger Toty jinked past one challenge and made his way into the area before being brought down by Sport’s Raul Prata. The ref, José Woshington, pointed to the spot.
Normally, that would have been that, but now Woshington had the opportunity to consult the video assistant. The official watching the television pictures at pitch-side called him over and they started to deliberate. The contact looked fairly clear but Toty had also made a bit of an exaggerated movement as he went to ground. It was probably a case of Gary Neville’s famous “foul and a dive”.
But the movement put doubt into the officials’ minds. They continued to discuss the images for a further six minutes as the players and fans grew increasingly agitated. Eventually they came to the conclusion that the initial decision was the correct one and, in the 101st minute, the spot kick was dispatched. The referee’s position and proximity to the incident was much better than that of the camera, so he was surely right to trust his first instinct.
The problem, though, was not the decision but the time it took to come to it. One of the biggest contentions that critics of VAR raise is that it will take too long; that it will cause unnecessary delays and disrupt the flow of the game. As this incident was right at the end of the 90 it was not an issue here, but were it to happen at another point in a game a six minute stoppage could have a real effect on momentum.
It was not an easy introduction for VAR in Brazil but it will certainly not be the last we see of it. There will need to be improvements and, to avoid prolonged breaks in play, more detailed guidelines about what to do in situations where there is an element of doubt even after seeing 20 replays.
However, In South America, where deceiving the referee can sometimes appear a refined art form, anything that can help make decisions will surely be welcomed by officials. The President of Conmebol has already promised that video referees will be used in this year’s Libertadores from the quarter-final stage onwards. Like it or not, the future of football officiating is here.