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The Case for Implementing VAR in the Middle of World Cup Qualifying

Concacaf played the first eight matchdays of World Cup qualifying without the VAR safety net, but that'll change for the final two windows—and it's the right move.

For the final two windows of World Cup qualifying, Concacaf has introduced another element to the competition. Despite going eight of 14 matchdays without video assistant referees, the region announced Wednesday that the final six will indeed feature VAR capability, adding another layer of potential officiating and call-correction to the proceedings after ironing out the personnel and infrastructure issues that prevented it from being implemented in the first place.

Making a change as significant as that over halfway into a qualifying tournament doesn't come without criticism. After all, why should certain games—the majority, even—be subjected to one set of rules and possibilities, while others, especially the ones later in the competition that will be more decisive in determining the nations that go to Qatar, are not?

Ultimately, it's a level playing field. All eight teams are subject to the same amount of games with the same rules. And shouldn't the goal be to do what's possible to get calls correct, especially in the matches that could wind up mattering the most? It's not a cure-all, by any means. Anyone who has been watching in the VAR era knows that the implementation across all leagues and competitions has been inconsistent and that even having replays accessible can still result in calls that are subjective and up for debate. But it's still a net-positive in the grand scheme.

“VAR has had its instances where sometimes you still watch the replay and you're like, ‘How do they still call that a certain way?’” U.S. center back Walker Zimmerman said Wednesday. “But at the end of the day, I do think that in theory and with how it can be implemented it can be something that is an equal playing field for both teams. So no problem for us. It shouldn't change anything about how we play or anything like that.”

Zimmerman was ironically the beneficiary of there not being VAR available for the last set of qualifiers. Had it been in place, it's entirely possible that a foul called on Jamaica's Damion Lowe for pushing Zimmerman on a corner kick from which he thought he'd scored may have been overturned. If that had been the case, the U.S. would've been down 2–1 in Kingston with just minutes to play, and the point it wound up taking from that match may not have actually registered. Nevertheless, there's an appetite for wanting to get calls right. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter—a central figure in one of the U.S.'s biggest non-VAR-era controversies as the shooter on Torsten Frings's handball-that-wasn't in the 2022 World Cup quarterfinals—was adamant about it before qualifying started, and eight games into the competition he'll have his way. His players seem aligned with his thinking.

“I think bringing in the VAR is going to be good,” U.S. winger Paul Arriola said. “I think it's helped leagues around the world. It'll help international soccer especially for us where there has been games and moments that can be decided based on a referee's call. So for me, I think it's good. Forget about what's happened in the past, I think it's a great time to add it in in such important games leading to the World Cup, so I'm excited about it.”

Concacaf will have VAR for the rest of World Cup qualifying

U.S. Soccer will be quick to point out that had VAR been in place in the last qualifying cycle, its infamous defeat to Trinidad & Tobago might not have cost it a trip to the World Cup in Russia after all. In a simultaneous match, Panama scored a phantom goal that should not have stood—the ball did not fully cross the line—and would have certainly been overturned by technology. It was given, though, and the rest was history. (And, had the U.S. taken care of its own business, it would've been irrelevant in the big picture of the Americans' qualification effort.)

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For those immediately jumping to this being an instance of Concacaf making things up on the fly, consider that UEFA did essentially the same thing, largely for the same reasons. Citing an inability to implement VAR at all qualifying sites—there is an immense cost, let alone the required infrastructure to pull it off, all during a pandemic, mind you—UEFA began its World Cup qualifying slog without video review as well before adding it after the first three of 10 matchdays had been played. That's not quite as identical as implementing it after eight of 14 matches have been completed, but it's still a matter of playing some of the competition under one set of guidelines before pivoting to another.

“The initial plans to start using VAR in UEFA national team qualification competitions were postponed due to the logistical complications and risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” UEFA wrote in an August 2021 statement before implementing the technology from September's matches on.

The lack of technology likely cost Portugal an automatic berth at the World Cup. In a March 2021 qualifier vs. Serbia, a would-be Cristiano Ronaldo goal was not given, even though replays showed the ball clearly and fully crossed the line. The teams settled for a draw, and Portugal went on to finish second in the group. Regardless of its squandered opportunities later in qualifying, the additional two points it should have had in March would've been enough to avoid a treacherous playoff route that could result in a winner-takes-all showdown vs. Italy.

Spain, which wound up qualifying automatically, also dropped points in a March qualifier and blamed a lack of VAR for the result. In its opening match of group play against Greece, a penalty was given for a foul committed by Iñigo Martínez, who was adamant it should not have stood. 

“It's a moment that they make you pay for,” Martínez said at the time. “We're not happy with the draw and with VAR it would've been a different story.”

Added teammate Marcos Llorente: “It didn’t look like a penalty to me on the pitch. With VAR that’s never, ever getting given.”

UEFA eventually introduced the technology, and now so has Concacaf. It's not as if there aren't controversial, decisive moments following VAR decisions, either. In the Concacaf Nations League final in June, both the U.S. and Mexico were given penalties in extra time following reviews. Christian Pulisic converted his, Andrés Guardado had his saved and the U.S. lifted the trophy. Regardless, there's going to be drama, but the hope is that it's at least a product of the correct call being made after multiple looks at plays in question. In the end, that's all teams and fans can ask for, and all should want as many resources as possible to be made available with World Cup qualification on the line.

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