The introduction of VAR at the World Cup in 2018 did nothing to dampen debate around crucial decisions, and this year’s tournament in Qatar has been no different. Whether it was Antoine Griezmann’s disallowed late equaliser against Tunisia for France, Argentina’s VAR-awarded penalty after Wojciech Szczęsny appeared to gently brush Lionel Messi’s face with his hand, or the lack of a penalty after England’s Harry Maguire was wrestled to the floor against Iran, VAR’s subjective calls remain a point of contention.
But no decision has sparked more discussion than the award of Japan’s second goal against Spain on Thursday evening, when – to the naked eye – it appeared that the ball had crossed the line and gone out of play. It ended up sealing Japan’s qualification and in effect knockingGermany out of the tournament.
What happened? Ao Tanaka scored in the 51st minute to make it 2-1 to Japan, following a cross by Kaoru Mitoma. But the question is whether the ball crossed the goalline for a Spain goal-kick first.
First of all, the laws of the game are quite clear:
A goal-kick is awarded when the whole of the ball passes over the goalline, on the ground or in the air, having last touched a player of the attacking team, and a goal is not scored.
So did the whole of the ball cross the line? In some pictures it appeared to be quite clear.
However, rather like faking pictures of giant rats with false perspective, where you take the picture from makes a difference as to whether the ball appears to have crossed the line or not.
In this photograph, for example, you can see that the ball appears to be wholly over the line.
However, without moving the ball at all, if you take a photograph of the same scene from a higher angle, you can see that the whole of the ball has not crossed the line.
Or if you prefer it in Subbuteo format.
The new tracking technology in the ball, much-touted before the World Cup started, is used as part of the semi-automated offside system, and is not used to track when the ball is in play.
The VAR officials ultimately instructed the referee, Victor Gomes of South Africa, to award the goal because they had seen an angle that showed that the ball had not wholly crossed the line. The slightest fraction of the curvature of the ball being above the line is sufficient for it to be deemed still in play.
They say World Cups are won on fine margins. There is perhaps none finer than this, regardless of how angry any television pundit gets about the decision.