On Wednesday evening, while the inclement weather brought about by The Beast from the East caused chaos to the United Kingdom’s basic transport infrastructure, another form of chaos was evident in North West London.  At Wembley, Tottenham Hotspur played the replay of their FA Cup tie fifth round tie against Rochdale AFC in freezing conditions.  While Tottenham eventually romped to a 6 – 1 victory, thereby ensuring their place in the quarter finals, most of the ensuing headlines related to refereeing decisions, most notably in respect of the use of the Video Assistant Referee (“VAR”).

Sports Shorts has covered the regulatory framework and the implementation of VAR on a number of occasions in the past, including here, here and here.  What is clear is that VAR is a technology still in its infancy – its application to football is therefore being worked out on a piecemeal basis.  As a result, while VAR has its champions, it also has a number of detractors.

The application of VAR at Wembley on Wednesday in the first half alone resulted in a goal being disallowed, a free-kick being converted into a penalty (on which, more below) while there were half a dozen further interruptions to the game while matters were referred to the video assistant.  In the second half, Fernando Llorente’s second goal was also awarded only after matters had been referred to the video assistant.  During the wait for these decisions, the crowd could be heard jeering and booing.  The fear that the implementation of the technology may end up interrupting the flow of the game and the spectator experience appeared well-founded on this shivery evening.

The intended use of VAR is to overturn “clear and obvious errors” in respect of goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identities.  Yet its application on Wednesday appeared to go beyond that and more closely resembled a contingency plan that would be used in the event of any decision of importance arising.

Yet despite the chaos that ensued as a result of the use of VAR, perhaps the most unusual decision of the night came in respect of the penalty awarded to Tottenham in the first half after Kieran Trippier had been adjudged to have been fouled in the Rochdale penalty box (the initial decision, before a VAR review, was to award a free kick to Tottenham).  Tottenham’s South Korean forward Heung Min-Son stepped up to take the penalty and, during his run-up, appeared to stutter, before completing his run-up, placing the ball to the goalkeeper’s left.

Referee Paul Tierney ruled the penalty out and gave Heung Min-Son a yellow card.  The goal did not count and Rochdale were granted an indirect free-kick.  Son was not the only person in Wembley who looked baffled.

Law 14 of the International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game deals with penalty kicks.  It states in part that:

“Once the referee has signalled for a penalty kick to be taken, the kick must be taken.  If, before the ball is in play, one of the following occurs:…

  • Except for the following when play will be stopped and restarted with an indirect free kick, regardless of whether or not a goal is scored
    • A penalty kick is kicked backwards
    • A team-mate of the identified kicker takes the kick; the referee cautions the player who took the kick
    • Feinting to kick the ball once the kicker has completed the run-up (feinting in the run-up is permitted); the referee cautions the kicker…

(Emphasis added).

To this viewer, it appeared that Son had feinted during the middle of his run-up (as is commonplace in modern football).  If that were the case, the penalty should have stood.  Tierney however disagreed and therefore disallowed the goal, awarded Rochdale an indirect free-kick and booked the South Korean.

All in all, the strange conditions and unusual decisions gave the tie between Tottenham and Rochdale an otherworldly feel.  Despite the game of football being one of the oldest in the world, this tie proved that the sport will continue to find new ways to entertain, confound and create talking points.  While VAR was introduced to eradicate errors (and thus remove a degree of controversy from the game), the refereeing and VAR decisions in this match did quite the opposite.