Samara is the sixth largest city in Russia and the centre of the country’s space exploration industry. It remains a secretive place, a hangover from when the Soviet Union battled the United States at the cutting edge of technology to send the first human into outer space. It was here that the rocket was built in which Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of Earth.
But on Thursday, inside a stadium designed in tribute to Samara’s history, football’s newest frontier of technology took centre stage. Video assistant refereeing should not be rocket science, basically equating to the opportunity for replays of incidents to allow a more considered decision to be taken by the referee. But it continues to confuse and confound, with both Australia’s and Denmark’s managers pointing out its shortcomings.
On this occasion the VAR decision went in Australia’s favour and Mile Jedinak converted a penalty to keep alive the Socceroos’ narrow hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the World Cup. That goal cancelled out Christian Eriksen’s magical seventh-minute opener but Australia could not capitalise on their second-half dominance. Their progress depends on them beating Peru and the result of the other Group C game going their way.
With uncertainty hanging in the air, talk turned to VAR. Australia were the wrong side of history in their opening game against France when a penalty was awarded for the first time in a World Cup match since VAR was introduced. On that occasion, Josh Risdon was judged upon review to have fouled Antoine Griezmann, much to the outrage of the Australian players. They may have felt they were due a lenient VAR decision and 38 minutes into this game, trailing by a goal, they got one.
The athletic Mathew Leckie rose prominently on the penalty spot with Yussuf Poulsen barging in with a late challenge. The Dane did not have much time to address his flailing limbs and Leckie’s header struck his left forearm. The Spanish referee, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, briefly left the field to consult the VAR monitor and decided to award a penalty.
Denmark’s coach, Åge Hareide, bemoaned perceived inconsistencies. “I do believe there was a penalty,” he said, “but the whole issue with VAR is that there are people somewhere in Russia to look at decisions because it looks like it could maybe have been a penalty. But other situations they are not having a look at. So who is deciding? The referee on the pitch or people in dark rooms elsewhere in Russia? In my opinion it removes a bit of the charm of football.”
Jedinak stepped up to the spot and remained composed in the face of sledging by Kasper Schmeichel. The heavily bearded Crystal Palace midfielder fired low and hard to the goalkeeper’s left, bringing an end to Schmeichel’s record run of nine hours and 31 minutes without conceding at international level. It also means that Australia’s last five goals in competitive games have come from Jedinak penalties.
That lack of goalscorers was clear in the second half. Australia failed to steal victory despite creating chances through Leckie and 19-year-old hotshotDaniel Arzani, the youngest player in the tournament, who sparkled after coming on with 22 minutes to play.
There were suggestions that Arzani should start the final game but the Australia coach, Bert van Marwijk, was unmoved. “I will not be telling you my plans,” he bristled.
The opening goal originated from a fine reverse pass by Nicolai Jørgensen after an electric start by the Danes. The Feyenoord forward flicked the ball behind him and into the path of the bounding Eriksen inside the 18-yard box. The Tottenham playmaker showed his class by getting over the ball and burying a left-footed half volley beyond the stretching Matty Ryan.
The Danes, on and off the pitch, called for a penalty in the 50th minute as Poulsen went down in the box, muscled off the ball by a couple of dark green Australian shirts. Among other things, Russia 2018 is destined to be remembered for the advent of middle-aged men in the stands doing TV gestures with their hands whenever there is the slightest contact in the box. The VAR debate rumbles on.