Video Assistant Refereeing has been the subject of an unholy amount of controversy since its introduction into the inherently in-the-moment and holistically captivating sport of football.
While the Premier League has been particularly scrutinised for its fairly calamitous use of VAR over the past few years, European football hasn’t escaped the technological innovation’s downside, either – amid all the division across the world, at least we can all unite with a hatred of this once-called saviour, eh?
Here are the ten most controversial uses and failures of VAR at Europe’s top table, the Champions League.
Let’s start with the most recent VAR-related incident, which thoroughly incensed Tottenham Hotspur and even saw Antonio Conte red-carded for his fiery outrage.
Harry Kane thought he’d bagged his side a 95th-minute winner in Spurs’ bout with Sporting CP with a tidy finish, only for his wheeling away in glee and the bench’s raucous joy to be cut abruptly by the news of a VAR check.
Replays showed the Spurs striker to be in an offside position at the moment that Emerson Royal headed the ball back across goal, but the topic of contention was Sporting defender Flavio Nazinho’s touch and near intervention of that pass.
While his flick on Emerson’s header probably made Kane’s chance more difficult, it’s hard to argue that the letter of the law wasn’t followed on that one. Controversial? Oh, yes. Wrong? Sorry, Spurs fans.
With the tie poised at 0-0, former Juve man Alvaro Morata floated into the box brilliantly before heading a pin-point effort past Gianluigi Buffon – a moment he’d never forget.
Well, following his celebrations, a dreaded check concluded that the Spanish striker had in fact given Giorgio Chiellini a shove in the back to gain an advantage. Let’s just say the Italian used all of his experience to earn one of the softest fouls you’re ever likely to witness.
As it turned out, Atleti would go on to win that game 2-0 but bowed out of the competition courtesy of Juventus’ stunning 3-0 second-leg comeback victory. Morata clearly didn’t harbour any hard feelings, though, rejoining I Bianconeri in the summer of 2020.
The 2019/20 group stage brought with it a trip to Slavia Prague for Inter, where a truly bizarre incident would occur.
In the 35th minute, Romelu Lukaku thought he’d doubled his side’s lead with the simplest of tap-ins; a few moments later, it was still 1-0 and the hosts were shaping up to take a penalty.
In the time for that bizarre turnaround to occur, the referee had chalked off the Belgian’s goal and brought play back to the Inter area, where a Slavia player had been fouled.
While a penalty should’ve originally been awarded, the goal undeniably occurred during a completely separate phase of play with the home side ceding possession after some sloppy passing around the back, begging the question ‘does anyone actually know what they’re doing?’
How often do we see teams’ cries for penalties waved away because the perpetrator’s distance was minimal? Well, scrap that.
In the penultimate qualifying round of this season’s Champions League, Rangers fell to a 2-0 defeat to Belgian outfit Union Saint-Gilloise wrapped up by a late penalty.
The spot kick – awarded against Connor Goldson when the ball ricocheted off a teammate and hit the defender on the arm from a yard away – didn’t prove fatal as the Gers won the second leg 3-0 to advance and eventually qualify for the Champions League group stage for the first time in ten years.
Best leave it there…
Whether Kevin De Bruyne‘s supernatural genius allowed him to avoid a sending-off against Paris Saint-Germain in the 2021/22 group stage is for each individual to ponder.
What is certain, though, is that his first-half challenge on Idrissa Gana Gueye in his side’s 2-0 defeat deserved to see red. The Belgian clearly endangered his opponent when stretching for the ball and recklessly digging his studs into the midfielder’s lower leg.
A VAR review, however, failed to overturn the referee’s award of the yellow card – a fact made all the more infuriating by the fact that Manchester United’s Aaron Wan Bissaka was given an early bath for a near-carbon copy of the tackle against Young Boys two weeks prior.
As criminal refereeing goes, this is right up there.
With the seconds counting down in Barcelona‘s matchday-three trip to Inter this season, Xavi and his players found themselves 1-0 down to Hakan Calhanoglu’s first-half strike, having had an equaliser rather harshly ruled out in the 68th minute – this one’s set up perfectly, isn’t it?
La Blaugrana were left even more incensed in the dying moments of the match when the referee missed Denzel Dumfries’ quite blatant handball that took the ball off the head of Ansu Fati in the area.
Not to worry, though – this is what VAR is for! Well, evidently not; the Netherlands defender and his side were left unpenalised for what was a stonewall spot kick.
Xavi will undoubtedly look back at the moment as a key factor in his side’s absence from the Champions League knockout stage for a second consecutive season – among a few other reasons, anyway.
PSG are famed for lacking the mentality to progress to the Champions League’s latter stages. In the 2018/19 campaign, however, they had reason to feel let down by a dodgy VAR call.
An off-field check concluded that Diogo Dalot’s shot, which cannoned off Presnel Kimpembe’s naturally sprawled arm for a corner, warranted the award of a Manchester United penalty.
With the tie poised at 3-2 in PSG’s favour, Marcus Rashford stepped up to take the 94th-minute spot kick and converted to send the Red Devils into the last eight on away goals.
You tell me how that’s a foul…
Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham was denied an equalising strike against Manchester City in the first leg of their quarter-final bout in the 2020/21 season after the referee interpreted his tenacity and grit as a foul.
After replays clearly showed the Englishman had beaten a complacent Ederson to the ball and even been volleyed in the foot by the City goalkeeper, however, VAR decided to stay with the on-field decision… Go figure.
One of the most anxiety-inducing and nail-biting Champions League knockout-stage matchups was Manchester City’s utterly classic quarter-final tie with Tottenham in the 2018/19 campaign.
Having won the first leg 1-0 at home, Spurs were looking good when, despite being 4-3 down at the Etihad, Fernando Lorente’s goal put his side in the ascendancy overall on away goals.
On further inspection, however, multiple angles – which didn’t get much airtime, it must be said – showed that the ball had made contact with the Spaniard’s elbow before bouncing into City‘s net via his hip. While many still believe that the right conclusion was met, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.
Anger soon turned into euphoria before quickly transforming into absolute despair for the home fans, though.
What made VAR so controversial in this particular Champions League showdown was Raheem Sterling‘s disallowed goal right at the death.
Following the pandemonium that ensued after the forward’s goal to put City 5-3 up in the game and 5-4 up in the tie right at the death, VAR spotted Sergio Aguero in an offside position in the build-up – talk about a mood-killer.
Although certainly the correct decision on this occasion, VAR’s failure to penalise Spurs under 20 minutes earlier and subsequent due diligence to slay the hosts’ dramatic delight understandably provoked an almighty rage from some sections of the game – not so much from others, namely the supporters wearing white shirts.