Mistake-filled Madrid vs. Bayern tie a prime example of why VAR is needed
We really ought to be discussing 210 minutes of captivating football between arguably the two best teams in the world. Instead, the aftermath of Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich has been dominated by talk of the match officials and their decisions.
With it is the usual talk of conspiracies and it's not just fans and media fanning the flames: Two World Cup-winning teammates, separated by the age-old Barcelona-Madrid divide, have been going at it as well.
Moments after Cristiano Ronaldo's goal to make the score 2-2, Gerard Pique tweeted this. To which, after the game, Sergio Ramos responded by saying: "He should rewind and look back at the PSG game and see if he thinks the same about the referees." The two have been at it for a long time and it's amusing to some. But, simply put, this sort of talk isn't just unseemly.
The vast UEFA-led conspiracy to favour certain teams theorem doesn't hold up. From a commercial standpoint, if you're going to "help" someone it's not going to be the guys who've won the Champions League twice in the past three seasons, but the other, hugely popular and well-connected juggernaut who hasn't won it since 2012-13. (Just ask the folks at WWE -- they know how to sell a product.)
More to the point, bad officiating is bad for the game and bad for UEFA. That's why it's not surprising European football's governing body issued a statement saying they were open to video assistant referees (VARs), which FIFA are currently trialing.
Pierluigi Collina, head of referees at both organizations, told me as much when I spoke to him last month at the "Football Talks" forum in Lisbon. He said there were limits to what humans could do and showed data that, upon review, some five percent of offside calls in Champions League games turn out to be wrong.
We've known for a long time that is impossible to get everything right; a study back in 2000 in the scientific journal "Nature" proved as much. (If there is a consolation, that article talks of one in 10 offside decisions being incorrect; at least, at the Champions League level anyway, linesmen are now twice as good as they were!)
Where human capability ends, it's fair enough that technology should take over; VAR was trailed at last year's Club World Cup and we're going to see further tests in domestic cup competitions as early as next season. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has already said he wants the technology in place at the 2018 World Cup and I doubt UEFA will be far behind.
Better late than never.
But back to Bayern and Real and a tie that featured mistakes in both legs. In Munich, for example, Bayern were awarded a penalty when Franck Ribery's shot caromed off Dani Carvajal, but replays showed it struck the Madrid defenders shoulder, rather than his arm.
On that occasion, referee Nicola Rizzoli was unlucky and lucky: Unlucky because it wasn't actually his mistake, but rather that of the Additional Assistant Referee (AAR) who made the call and, because he was better positioned, was not overruled. Rizzoli was lucky because Arturo Vidal missed the subsequent spot kick that would have made it 2-0 to Bayern.
Tuesday night at the Bernabeu offered up a whole gaggle of refereeing talking points. Vidal's second yellow card was harsh and Casemiro should have been sent off, while Madrid's second and third goals were offside, as was Bayern's second.
For those reasons, today's papers don't make pleasant reading for referee Victor Kassai but, at this point, let's get this straight on the referee. Some pundits in England got sniffy about having a Hungarian referee officiate a game of this magnitude since his domestic league isn't as good or as fast as a Champions league quarterfinal between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
Kassai, though, has officiated more than 150 games at international or UEFA level, dating back to 2003. This was his 18th Champions' League knockout game and, six years ago, he took charge of the final between Barcelona and Manchester United. He also took charge of a World Cup semifinal and a European Championship quarterfinal. He's not a bad referee; he's a very good referee who had a very bad game.
Of all the errors and talking points, there were two that were 100 percent, nailed on, grossly incorrect. First, Vidal's tackle on Marco Asensio was clean, though the Bayern midfielder was, perhaps, lucky not to have got a second yellow for a challenge on Casemiro at the start of the second half.
And second, obviously, Ronaldo was way offside for his second goal -- the one that made it 4-3 on aggregate -- though that isn't down to Kassai but rather his assistant, who really did have a horrific night.
VAR would have overturned both those decisions, as well as the Carvajal penalty decision in the first leg. There was no issue of interpretation in either incidents: Vidal did not foul Asensio in winning the ball, Kassai simply got it wrong. And Ronaldo was so far offside, it's unclear what the assistant actually saw.
But what of the other decisions? Both the offside in the lead-up to Ramos' own goal and the one on the pass from Marcelo to Ronaldo for Madrid's third were tight decisions, clear examples of human error that is pardonable because we don't have robots patrolling the sidelines.
In both situations, the assistant was sprinting up the line and misjudged the angle. Getting wrong a close decision like that isn't scandalous. And yet, with VAR, both would have been reviewed. And overturned.
Would it have changed the outcome of the tie? That's impossible to know, because it's not as simple as saying: "Well, Ramos' own goal wouldn't have stood, so it would have finished 1-1 and Madrid would be in the semifinal." Football doesn't work that way; decisions change games and it's impossible to know how things would have unfolded. We can only guess.
But what we do know is that, with VAR, we wouldn't be discussing Kassai and his officiating right now. Pique wouldn't have sent that tweet. Ramos wouldn't have responded and the whole atmosphere would be a little bit less poisonous.
What we also know is that it's coming soon. And, while it won't rid football of controversy, conspiracy and refereeing errors, it will help limit the most egregious examples.
And that can only be a good thing.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.