To state that Spain and Portugal went through to the last 16 of the World Cup on Monday, and will face Russia and Uruguay, respectively, is true. And, at the same time, it is so far from presenting a true picture of the drama that unfolded that it may as well not be. After a tournament in which VAR had worked remarkably smoothly, there came the first real controversy in its use: two penalties awarded and a yellow card shown to Cristiano Ronaldo that perhaps should have been a red.
Iran had fallen behind to a quite brilliant strike from Ricardo Quaresma, a goal out of keeping with a first half that was long on effort and short on real quality. Intelligent possession football worked the ball to Quaresma on the right, and he played a one-two to cut inside before arcing a shot with the outside of his right foot into the top corner–a trademark move, and his first World Cup goal in his first World Cup start at the age of 34. With Spain struggling against Morocco, that set Portugal top of the group at halftime.
And then VAR raised its head. Ronaldo’s contribution had been limited. There were some wildly speculative long-range shots, some incredulous grinning when he didn’t get free kicks and corners and, nine minutes into the second half, a burst in from the left that took him past Morteza Pouraliganji before a collision with Saeid Ezatolahi. It probably was a penalty, but it wasn’t an entirely unrealistic interpretation to suggest Ronaldo had simply run into the Iranian midfielder. Initially the Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres decided against giving the penalty, but after a VAR review he gave it, much to Iranian fury.
As a number of players surrounded the referee, Ehsan Hajsafi was booked while Queiroz, who is himself not merely Portuguese but a former Portugal manager–and one who has a tense relationship with both Ronaldo and Pepe–tossed his jacket to one side and stalked off down the tunnel.
It was all rather unedifying, an extension of the bizarre sense they had been cheated after the defeat to Spain. Yet goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, who ran away from his nomad shepherd family at age 12 to become a footballer, saved the penalty. Queiroz returned to the technical area, and in his excitement Sardar Azmoun got himself booked for further dissent.
This is where VAR remains a problem: 20 minutes after the Ronaldo penalty, Azmoun went down in the box after a nudge from William Carvalho. It was probably not a foul, but equally it doesn’t help a side in the grip of a persecution complex when it sees one incident being reviewed and one not. Tensions were raised. There were wild tackles, wilder dives and a disgraceful moment of play-acting from Quaresma.
Then Ronaldo and Pouraliganji tangled. At first, it seemed something of nothing, but Caceres decided to look at the video. Again and again he watched, and the more the footage was shown, the more it began to be clear that Ronaldo had thrust his elbow into the Iranian’s face. And that is another issue with VAR: slow motion can make the mundane seem violent and vice versa. What was baffling was Caceres’s decision: either it was an accident and so no action should have been taken, or it was violent conduct and a red card. He showed yellow, an inexplicable compromise.
That did nothing to dampen Iranian tempers. Caceres essentially spent the final quarter of the game surrounded by angry players on both sides, and in the final minute he was persuaded to look at an incident in which Azmoun’s header brushed the arm of Cedric Soares, who was no more than two feet from him. The referee by then seemed a broken man, and wearily gave a ludicrous penalty. Karim Ansarifard converted brilliantly. At the precise same time, news came through that Iago Aspas had stolen a late equalizer for Spain vs. Morocco. Portugal, with two controversial penalties, one saved and one scored, had squandered the top spot in the group.
Perhaps that isn’t so significant. Portugal is a side that often looks better when it can play as an underdog, sitting deep, keeping its shape and using Ronaldo on the break and from set plays. That was the blueprint that won it the Euros in 2016, and it may work again. The worry may be more the manner in which Portugal finished in second, the sense it opened the door needlessly to Spain.
But the ramifications go far further than that. After 11 days in which VAR has been hailed as an obvious success, this was the other side: A half in which it was used for three major decisions, may not have gotten any of them right and demonstrably led to an increase in dissent from both players and managers.