The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will be introduced in the finals of the African Nations Cup, the Confederation of African Football has confirmed, and this has elicited mixed feelings from viewers and fans of the round leather game.
Ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, that VAR would be used in the tournament…but only from the quarter-final stage.
The decision probably prompted a sigh of relief among tournament organizers; while VAR has largely been welcomed in football, it’s also brought with it its fair share of controversy and distraction.
Considering the troubled road that Caf has trodden in recent weeks, months and years, not to mention the problems associated with this tournament—which was stripped from original hosts Cameroon and awarded to Egypt at the death—African football can do without any more unfavorable headlines.
However, with VAR now widely introduced—and increasingly being introduced—into the world game, this progressive Caf regime cannot appear to be out of touch.
So with this week’s quarter-finals kicking off across Egypt, VAR and the Nations Cup will meet for the first time.
There are obvious problems with introducing the technology midway through a competition.
If Tunisia win the tournament, for example, with a critical VAR decision that goes their way between now and the end of the competition, then a thought must be spared for Ghana, who had a goal dubiously disallowed in their Round of 16 defeat by the Carthage Eagles due to a ‘handball’ by Thomas Partey.
It would have been a goal to change the complexion of this finely poised tie, which stood at 0-0 at the time and ultimately went to penalties following a 1-1 draw.
Replays appeared to show the ball coming off Partey’s chin and prompted a complaint from Black Stars coach Kwesi Appiah at full time.
“We had a lot of opportunities to finish the game before 90 minutes,” he told journalists. “If we had VAR to check on the [disallowed] goal, maybe it would have been a different result.
“I think that since [VAR] is being used in the whole world and we all know the benefits [Caf should use it too]. Sometimes if you lose points because of the mistake of a referee, I don’t think it [makes for] the best competition.”
It hasn’t been the first critical refereeing decision made this tournament which could feasibly have gone the other way if referees had had access to the technology, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for one, will feel that they’d still be standing had VAR been in operation for their Round of 16 tie against Madagascar.
“In future, if Caf can start [VAR] from the onset [of a tournament], I don’t think it will do anyone harm,” added Appiah. “It benefits everyone.
“Any decisions that are taken, the video review referees will show what [they are]. I don’t like criticizing referees [but] I think he should look at the video again and judge himself – that’s the best thing to do.”
Unfortunately, African teams’ interaction with VAR to date has also been mottled with controversy.
At the Women’s World Cup, Cameroon’s knockout clash with England was overshadowed by the players’ reaction to the referee’s decisions and the officials’ use of the technology.
With the Indomitable Lionesses fuming in the belief that the referee was using VAR discriminately, and that wrong decisions were being made—with and without consultation of replays—they, at one point, refused to restart the match in a mini-protest at the officiating.
While this kind of behavior could feasibly have happened before the introduction of VAR, the technology adds another flashpoint to the sport, another twist on the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany football matches, and Cameroon’s ladies were swept up in the maelstrom on the fields of France.
The match descended into scandal as the Lionesses took their grievances out—brutally—on England (and the referee), prompting stinging criticism from their coach Phil Neville after the match.
The Afcon is no stranger to refereeing controversies—witness Tunisia’s quarter-final elimination by hosts Equatorial Guinea in 2015—but VAR can prompt an additional sense of injustice, and fuel the conspiracy theories that have already been voiced by Congolese, Guinean and Ghanaian journalists at the tournament already.
Finally, Caf’s own execution of VAR has been troubled, with the biggest continental club game of the year—the second leg of the Caf Champions League final between Esperance de Tunis and Wydad Casablanca—still to be resolved after the game was halted due to officiating controversy.
Caf Champions League final 2019
Moroccans Wydad walked off the pitch after their 59th-minute equalizer in the second leg—which would have made the tie 2-2 on aggregate—was ruled out, without VAR being consulted.
Their protests continued for around an hour and a half, with Caf president Ahmad Ahmad even coming down to pitchside to attempt to resolve the issue.
It later emerged that VAR was not functioning at the match, due to some of the components of the technology being lost in transit, although there are conflicting reports about whether this was communicated to the two teams before kick-off.
Either way, it made for an ugly episode—Esperance was awarded the win but later ordered to hand back the trophy and their medals with the fixture to be replayed at a neutral venue—and completely sullied seven months of competition.
The decision by Caf to not uphold their official ruling—that the match should be awarded to Esperance due to Wydad’s walk-out—goes against the International Football Association’s laws of the game, and it will be fascinating to see how the various heavyweight elements implicated in this mess resolve the tangle over the coming months.
The introduction of VAR on the back of two such high-profile scandalous episodes for the African game is a risk for Caf—one that will doubtless be prompting sleepless nights—and while the technology has largely been a positive introduction for the sport, African football should be braced for any maelstroms it could trigger over the coming weeks.