VAR brings drama – it enhanced the Champions League at Schalke

Manchester City’s experience showed VAR is imperfect and will not end debates but also demonstrated its beauty

VAR: farce or fantastic fillip for football? Thirty-five minutes into Manchester City’s breathless 3-2 win at Schalke came an incident that was a gift for those who view the system as a farrago waiting to happen.

When Daniel Caligiuri’s shot hit Nicolás Otamendi’s right arm the technology kicked in. Except, not at first, as the pitch-side monitors failed to work. This caused a delay of three minutes before studio-based officials informed the referee, Carlos del Cerro Grande, a penalty should be awarded.

Cue a two-pronged outcry on social media. The first featured a collective snort at the touchline screens not working. This was embarrassing for Uefa but when it dawns on the governing body to install multiple backups the problem is sure to vanish.

The second complaint concerned whether the decision was correct – a prevailing question aimed at VAR and one that is more material to its worth. This argument runs that anything and everything can appear a transgression when shown in ultra-slow motion and from multiple angles. So, for Otamendi: what chance did he have of flinging an arm out of the way given the velocity of Caligiuiri’s shot?

But this is the part of VAR’s beauty. That the debate can rage endlessly over whether Otamendi broke a law is seized on as a weakness. Yet football – like all sport – is about drama, high-stakes moments that excite in real time and offer talking points after the final whistle.

Nothing is perfect but to sit in the Veltins Arena and watch the flow of a vibrant Champions League game paused to decide whether the side losing had a chance of an equaliser was to extend jeopardy deliciously. To see finely tuned performers such as David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne halted by a technology mix-up and learn of the agonising of officials called into action in a room somewhere gave the spectacle an extra dimension.

When the verdict arrived no one knew what had happened precisely. In an instant age where news becomes stale in the time a tweet can be read this was refreshing, the live theatre of wondering what was going on a boon.

Nabil Bentaleb converted the kick, then a second minutes later and the game was turned on its head. When asked about VAR Pep Guardiola was instructive. “It was penalty,” City’s manager said of the first. “The referees need more help.”

They do and even if that features decisions open to interpretation this can best be appreciated through the prism of Bill Shankly’s playful aphorism about football being more important than life and death: a 90-minute soap opera that matters and does not really.

VAR was used at Atlético Madrid’s game against Juventus to reverse a penalty decision and disallow a goal.
VAR was used at Atlético Madrid’s game against Juventus to reverse a penalty decision and disallow a goal. Photograph: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Just over a 1,000 miles south VAR was also a focal point at the Wanda Metropolitano as a penalty initially awarded to Atlético Madrid when Diego Costa was felled was chalked off and an Álvaro Morata header erased for a foul. If Diego Simeone’s team had still not ended with a 2-0 win over Juventus the hue and cry about the system’s intervention would have been louder.

That’s as it should be. It’s what the game is about: incident and opinion. And if the response on Twitter to the Otamendi incident was of a level akin to a moral panic this is affirming too. People really care. It is why the sport exists, because it means something.

With some tweaking to what remains a start-up innovation VAR will get most judgments correct while adding yet more spice.