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Colombia x Chile - 28/06/19
Colombia x Chile - 28/06/19

A Bridge Too VAR

The closest I had ever been to a major international tournament until now was getting drunk in Dortmund for a week as a student during the 2006 World Cup. Balking at the 80 ticket price the touts were quoting for the glamour tie of Togo x Switzerland, I never quite made it inside the stadium. Being Scottish doesn't exactly lend itself to following the big tournaments up close, and prior to my lost week in Germany the only other finals I had been to was the Under-16s World Cup, when I watched through the tears as Paul Dickov and co. were defeated in the final by some suspiciously bearded Saudi Arabians. Thus, when the Copa America was announced as coming to Brazil, I was excited to finally watch some top quality international football and see some of the best South American players showcase their talent in their own back gardens.

This is where problem one arose. No sooner had I managed to book my seven tickets (four group games and one for each knockout round) than my day job decided to send me to Boston for the first week of the competition. Faced with the dilemma of putting food on the table or seeing Messi in the flesh for the first time, I narrowly decided on the former and made my way disconsolately to the States, settling for watching Argentina lose 2 x 0 in the airport lounge. 

Four group games down the drain, I finally got some luck when results worked in my favour and the pick of the quarters, Colombia x Chile, ended up at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians stadium, colloquially known as Itaquerao. Maybe this tournament might work out for me after all, I thought. Considering Argentina have managed to limp into a semi-final against Brazil, which I also have tickets for, it seemed that things could be worse.

The Arena Corinthians is beautiful stadium built for the 2014 World Cup, but it does lack in any stadium-side entertainment. Not to be put off, we managed to imbibe near gallon-sized beers from the shopping centre food court and were in good spirits as we made our way to the stadium. That mood was somewhat dampened as one of our number had his phone pinched from his pocket as we crushed our way through the security checkpoint. His first ever game of football; he might not be back!

Settling into our fancy seats, the atmosphere was fantastic. Finally, the grandeur of the occasion had managed to outweigh the overpriced tickets, and a near capacity stadium belted out the national anthems of Chile and Colombia. I was in a stadium, at a major tournament, and it was living up to the hype. Before me were Rodriguez, Vidal and, a rare sight for any United fan, a starting Sanchez. The game took off at a good pace and I thought we might be in for the classic that the tournament needs to breathe some life into what until now has been a bit of a damp squib. I thought…

See, there has been an unwanted guest that has reared its ugly head more than a few times at the tournament already. A boorish cretin of a party-pooper intent on spoiling all the fun. VAR had been invited, gorged itself on the group stage hors-d'oeuvres and was now vomiting disallowed goals all over the place. Game after game of this tournament has been made duller for the introduction of this new technology and, much like at the Women’s World Cup, its use, and whether the officials in charge possess the ability to use it effectively or not, has caused much debate. And here, sixteen minutes into my first international tournament game, it was out to spoil my fun.

As footballing soothsayer and general polyglot Barry Glendenning has pointed out on the Guardian Football Weekly Podcast, if you don’t like something there is one way to make the governing organisations understand - “don’t go”. With his Irish lilt ringing in my ears, I decided to willfully misunderstand his advice and stage my own minor protest. I had had enough and I wouldn’t let VAR spoil the rest of my night. Out of my R$400 seat I got and out of the stadium I went - much to the confusion of the turnstile operator who seemed to think I wanted to leave and return, and finally acquiesced to my leaving when I convinced him I had no intention of ever returning.

So off I sulked. Turns out there was another Chile goal chalked off in the second half. Technically right, but unnecessary and to the detriment of the game. I was already home by then, watching some comedy and glad that I could put the misery of my sixteen minute international debut behind me. 

Now, I appreciate that I might be archaic here, and it has crossed my mind that valuing entertainment over fairness could be my own personal anachronism. I didn't complain much at the introduction of VAR in last year’s World Cup, however my personal experience was certainly tainted as the wind was taken out of Palmeiras’ comeback against Boca in last season’s Copa Libertadores after another dubious and dispiriting decision. Maybe it is just me, but I doubt it.

So, do I regret it? To be honest, maybe one fewer gallon of beer and my decision might have been different. However, I’m happy that I chose to make a small, unnoticed stand. Imagine if everyone was willing to forgo their place in the stadium and vote with their feet: I imagine we might be able to get FIFA to have a second thought if come the semi-final on Tuesday, and come the inevitable VAR nonsense, everyone got up and walked out. I’m guessing that even I might shrink from the idea of leaving Messi, Aguero, Coutino and Firmino out there in an empty stadium, but what a sight it would be and what heads would be turned. Knowing FIFA and their disdain for the fan, probably not as many as you would hope, but it’s worth a try, isn't it?