VAR’s most controversial moments at the World Cup
The 2022 World Cup had more than its fair share of VAR controversy, especially through the group stage.
– World Cup VAR review in full: Every decision analysed
There were a total of 27 VAR interventions at this World Cup — 25 overturns plus two which were rejected by the referee at the monitor. That’s an increase of seven on the 2018 edition (17 overturns and three rejections), but the numbers alone don’t quite tell the whole story.
The Qatar World Cup saw a huge amount of VAR activity in the group stage, so that there were more VAR interventions before the end of the group stage than in the whole of the 2018 tournament.
Something seemed to change once we reached the knockout rounds, with only two VAR overturns — the penalties awarded against France to Poland in the round of 16 and to England in the quarterfinals.
That’s a frequency of 0.52 reviews per game across the group stage, or one every other game, and 0.125 in the knockout stages, or one every eight matches. It is fair to say that the standard of refereeing was far higher after the knockouts with fewer errors.
Here, we take a look at the most contentious moments … but which came out as the worst? We pick out a top 10, based upon controversy and not always because the decision may have been incorrect. What went wrong, and what happened to the officials involved?
10. Croatia penalty cancelled for offside against Lovren
Croatia 0-0 Belgium
Referee: Anthony Taylor (England)
Offside VAR: Rafael Foltyn (Germany)
Premier League referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot after Yannick Carrasco caught Andrej Kramaric inside the area, but FIFA’s offside technology identified the most marginal of offside calls against Dejan Lovren in the buildup.
When FIFA announced its new semiautomated offside technology in the summer, head of referees Pierluigi Collina made it clear he felt the technology was so precise that the result should be taken as a matter of fact. (The system used in the major leagues has a tolerance level due to lower accuracy.)
Lovren was in front of Jan Vertonghen by such a small margin even FIFA’s own image was difficult to understand.
FIFA’s graphic shows a vertical line drawn to the farthest-most part of the defender, effectively creating an offside line. This was to the upper arm of Vertonghen, but on the animation Lovren was behind the Belgium defender, so largely hidden. And with Lovren’s arm being at an angle toward the camera too, it made it very difficult to see which part of the Croatia player was offside.
FIFA will have learned a few things about the technology during this World Cup, one being that while this animation is better than the manual lines we see in the domestic leagues, it still needs some tweaking to give absolute clarity. The offside is only shown from one angle, the side the main television camera, which can obscure the attacking player in tight calls.
9. VAR penalty for foul by Amartey on Nunez rejected by the referee
Ghana 0-2 Uruguay
Referee: Daniel Siebert (Germany)
Offside VAR: Bastian Dankert (Germany)
Uruguay thought they were about to be handed a penalty when the VAR advised the referee should go to the monitor to look at Daniel Amartey‘s challenge on Darwin Nunez.
For only the second time in the tournament, a referee stuck with their decision. (The other came when a penalty for Denmark was rejected vs. Tunisia.)
Referee Daniel Siebert took a long look at the incident from several angles, and ultimately concluded he hadn’t made a clear and obvious error.
There is no doubt Amartey gets a toe to the ball, but he appeared to make contact with the striker in doing so. It was a brave move from the referee.
Siebert wasn’t given another appointment and was soon on a plane back to Germany. Dankert remained in Qatar, but he didn’t get another game — only being named as the stand-by VAR for the Argentina vs. Croatia semifinal and the final.
8. Penalty awarded to Ronaldo not overturned
Portugal 3-2 Ghana
Referee: Ismail Elfath (United States)
VAR: Armando Villarreal (United States)
Dale Johnson discusses the VAR incidents from Portugal’s clash with Ghana.
It was described a stroke of “genius” by FIFA Technical Study Group panel member Faryd Mondragon, but the whole of Ghana would have chosen very different words.
Portugal were awarded a penalty by referee Ismail Elfath in the 62nd minute when Cristiano Ronaldo was knocked over by Mohammed Salisu, and the VAR chose not to get involved and instigate a full review.
Replays showed that Ronaldo definitely got to the ball first ahead of Salisu before there was contact on the Portugal striker’s boot and upper body. But Salisu also got some contact on the ball at the same time he collided with Ronaldo. There were some similarities to the penalty not given to Nunez at the monitor.
It was a soft penalty, and if the referee hadn’t given it it’s unlikely the VAR would have advised a spot kick.
FIFA was clearly supportive, because Elfath was given the Cameroon vs. Brazil group game, Japan vs. Croatia in the round of 16 and fourth official duties for the final. Villarreal had 12 VAR roles across the World Cup, but this was the only match where he was the lead video assistant.
7. Possible penalty for foul by Upamecano on Kane
England 1-2 France
Referee: Wilton Sampaio (Brazil)
VAR: Nicolas Gallo (Colombia)
Referee Wilton Sampaio didn’t just fail to award Harry Kane a penalty, he didn’t even give the England captain a free kick after he went down on the edge of the area under a Dayot Upamecano challenge.
There’s no doubt Kane was fouled, with Upamecano trying to win the ball through Kane’s legs. The VAR, Nicolas Gallo of Colombia, couldn’t correct the decision not to award a free kick, he could only rule on a possible penalty.
It comes down to the moment of contact which causes the foul: where is that part of Kane’s leg in relation to the line? (The line belongs to the box, so it’s a penalty if on it.)
The VAR checked every available angle (Gallo has far more than we are shown on television) and decided contact was outside the area. But those watching on TV were only shown two angles — one camera made it look more of a penalty than the other.
It highlights the unacceptable level of information on VAR decisions within games, with fans only shown what the VAR is viewing if the referee is at the monitor. We all want to hear the audio from the VAR room, but at the moment FIFA (and UEFA for that matter) is reluctant to even show supporters what the video team is looking at.
Sampaio was kept on through to the end of the tournament but didn’t get another game, while Gallo was named as the assistant VAR for the France vs. Morocco semifinal and support VAR for the third-place playoff.
6. Possible penalty for foul by Hernandez on Boufal
France 2-0 Morocco
Referee: Cesar Ramos (Mexico)
VAR: Drew Fischer (Canada)
Not only did Sofiane Boufal not get a penalty for Theo Hernandez‘s challenge, the Morocco player also got booked for committing a phantom foul. The incorrect yellow card to the attacker cannot be removed without the VAR advising a penalty.
Hernandez had a heavy touch just inside the area, and then got a foot on the ball before colliding with Boufal. The Morocco defender didn’t even make a challenge and was in fact kicked by Hernandez.
The VAR, Drew Fischer of Canada, decided Hernandez simply collided with Boufal as a result of winning the ball. But he won the ball with his left foot, and took Boufal out with his right leg.
The touch on the ball and the fact Hernandez didn’t catch his opponent with the sole of his boot meant there was no full VAR review for a penalty. But we can be fairly certain that had referee Cesar Ramos given the spot kick it wouldn’t have been overturned.
Fischer was the VAR who advised Saudi Arabia should be awarded a very soft penalty against Poland, with Salem Al-Dawsari‘s effort saved by Wojciech Szczesny. This feels more of a penalty than that, though Fischer was one of the most active VARs at this World Cup, taking charge of eight matches, so FIFA clearly rated his performances.
5. Valencia goal ruled out for offside
Qatar 0-2 Ecuador
Referee: Daniele Orsato (Italy)
Offside VAR: Tomasz Listkiewicz (Poland)
Dale Johnson explains why Ecuador had a goal ruled out in confusing circumstances in the World Cup opener vs. Qatar.
It was the very first day of the World Cup, and hosts Qatar appeared to have fallen behind after only three minutes when Enner Valencia scored. But the VAR stepped in and ruled it out for offside.
We can file this under a correct decision really poorly explained which led to undue controversy.
When the free kick was played into the area, Ecuador defender Felix Torres challenged Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al-Sheeb. The ball fell to Michael Estrada, who headed it back to Torres for him to create the goal for Valencia. When Torres got a touch on the ball with his head, Estrada had one leg ahead of the second-last defensive player, Abdelkarim Hassan.
The added confusion comes from Estrada being obscured on the TV camera angle by Torres and Al-Sheeb, and another defender being closer to goal. It looks like there is only one Ecuador player in the picture, when there is in fact two.
A very simple and clear offside decision was made out to be questionable due to a lack of information.
Even though FIFA did eventually show its offside animation, it came several minutes afterwards. It’s FIFA’s policy not to show the graphic immediately, and instead wait until the next natural gap in play. There’s logic to it, as it means the animation is not interrupting the game, but it certainly hasn’t been shown at the first available point during this tournament.
It also highlighted another area to address with FIFA’s animation. Because it only shows the attacking player and the second-last defender, so the only two relevant for an offside, it leads to fans questioning the decision as they believed the goalkeeper was farther back than the defender used.
Fans also questioned a VAR offside given against Argentina‘s Lautaro Martinez against Saudi Arabia for the same reason. They felt a different Saudi player was slightly farther back and playing the striker onside, but the animation only showed the two players highlighted by the technology.
4. Tanaka goal awarded as ball ruled to be in play
Japan 2-1 Spain
Referee: Victor Gomes (South Africa)
VAR: Fernando Guerrero (Mexico)
ESPN FC’s Dale Johnson explains why VAR chose not to disallow Japan’s 2nd goal against Spain.
Japan thought they had scored a second goal in the 51st minute when Ao Tanaka netted after Kaoru Mitoma cut the ball back from the goal-line, but the referee disallowed the goal for the ball being out of play.
The VAR found definitive evidence that part of the ball was on the line. Importantly, this isn’t just about the ball touching the ground. The curvature overhanging the line also counts, even if a very small part of the ball is doing so.
The goal-line camera was used to make the decision, but television companies were left to guess over the evidence used to prove the ball was in play; FIFA should be providing guidance to inform fans.
This isn’t about the decision itself being wrong, in the end most people will now accept it was correct. But it was another example of a lack of communication from FIFA over VAR overturns, fully highlighting the disconnect between the system and the watching fans; there is never any clarity offered at any juncture over subjective decisions. Unlike in the Premier League, where the VAR feed is shared to broadcasters throughout a review, FIFA controls the output. If VAR is to be truly accepted, this has to be vastly improved, at all levels.
Some 18 hours after the incident happened, FIFA finally tweeted out the goal-line camera angle used to make the decision. This could have been done much earlier.
Japan’s second goal in their 2-1 win over Spain was checked by VAR to determine if the ball had gone out of play.
The video match officials used the goal line camera images to check if the ball was still partially on the line or not. pic.twitter.com/RhN8meei6Q
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) December 2, 2022
It proved to be the goal that knocked Germany out of the World Cup.
3. Penalty for foul by Szczesny on Messi
Poland 0-2 Argentina
Referee: Danny Makkelie (Netherlands)
VAR: Pol Van Boekel (Netherlands)
The softest penalty awarded at this World Cup, but not the worst decision. At least with this call there was a justifiable explanation: Szczesny came out to claim a cross, Lionel Messi got to his head to the ball first and the goalkeeper softly caught the striker in his face with his glove.
Quite simply, it’s not the kind of incident VAR was brought in for. Granted, Szczesny’s glove did make contact with Messi, but the striker wasn’t prevented from playing the ball and any contact was inconsequential. A very experienced official was in charge of this game, Dutch referee Danny Makkelie, and it would have been better had he rejected the VAR review at the monitor.
Alas, Makkelie went with the advice of compatriot Pol Van Boekel in the VAR room and a penalty was awarded — and Szczesny duly kept out Messi’s effort.
If the referee gave this as a penalty during the game, that would perhaps be a different matter, but even then many would feel it was so soft there would be grounds for the VAR to overturn it.
Makkelie didn’t get another appointment of any kind; Van Boekel was given one more game as lead VAR, Croatia vs. Brazil.
2. Penalty for handball against Gimenez
Portugal 2-0 Uruguay
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Iran)
VAR: Abdulla Al-Marri (Qatar)
It terms of the decision itself, this was the worst mistake of the World Cup — but it doesn’t grab the No. 1 spot for VAR controversies.
As Bruno Fernandes attempted to work in the ball into the area, Jose Maria Gimenez slid in to make a challenge and the ball came off his arm that was going to the ground as he was falling backwards. The VAR, Abdullah Al-Marri of Qatar (remember this name), advised a review for a penalty and referee Alireza Faghani of Iran, somewhat reluctantly, went with the decision.
It was a remarkable situation, which went against the official guidance over exceptions to handball issued by The IFAB when the law was clarified last year. One specific example covers when “arm position is for support when falling or when getting up from the ground.” It doesn’t matter if the ball hits the hand before it touches the floor.
Gimenez was very clearly using his left arm for support as he falls to challenge Fernandes, and this has to be covered by the exception. It is almost identical to the example The IFAB issued.
The only justification for such a penalty is if the defender deliberately placed his arm to stop the ball. But this was in a natural position to support his body, and it just so happened that’s where the ball went.
This shouldn’t have been a penalty, and the extra goal came back to bite Uruguay as they were knocked out of the World Cup at the group stage by one goal, South Korea going through in second place.
Faghani didn’t get another appointment and went home. But what of Al-Marri? Read on.
1. Griezmann goal disallowed for offside
Tunisia 1-0 France
Referee: Matthew Conger (New Zealand)
VAR: Abdulla Al-Marri (Qatar)
One of the biggest failures of VAR protocol we’ve ever seen, and it happened on the biggest stage. A goal was disallowed which shouldn’t have been reviewable because the referee had restarted play. Luckily for FIFA, it had no effect on the group standings.
When Aurelien Tchouameni played the ball into the area, Antoine Griezmann was stood yards offside. However, the France striker made no attempt to play the ball or challenge an opponent. Defender Montassar Talbi tried to head the ball, but he didn’t get much on the clearance and it dropped to Griezmann, who scored what he thought was a 98th-minute equaliser.
The players went back to the halfway line as usual. There was no indication a VAR review was ongoing.
New Zealand referee Matthew Conger gave one short whistle for the kickoff, followed instantly — but with a definite gap — by the full-time whistle. This means he has allowed play to restart and by VAR protocol it isn’t possible to review the offside offence. If Conger had only blown for full-time, a review was valid.
The VAR for the game was Al-Marri, who had already been appointed to it before the incident in the Portugal vs. Uruguay fixture 48 hours earlier.
So who was to blame? If we pull it back to the very base level, it has to be the referee because he knows he has blown to restart the game, and then whistled for full-time. He had the knowledge to tell the VAR that a review would be invalid.
At the same time, the communication from the VAR room must have been really poor for Conger not be be aware a review was ongoing, leading to the restart.
This was Conger’s one and only appointment of any kind at the World Cup. Al-Marri, unsurprisingly, didn’t get another game.
France protested against the disallowed goal, demanding a 1-1 draw. Six days later, FIFA rejected that appeal without offering any reasoning. The Laws of the Game do state that an incorrect review doesn’t invalidate a match.
The decision to disallowed the goal itself was controversial enough, as Talbi headed the ball before Griezmann scored. But that, at least, had a subjective argument for being correct.