We should all savour the last days watching a player take a tumble, untouched, in the penalty box and the referee signaling for a penalty kick. The video assistant referee (VAR) is making sure that we are in a new era. An era where the referee’s decision can be questioned. Not by players or by fans but by the almighty VAR. It is the coming of a Messiah. Salvation has finally reached football.
But has it? We surely hope so. At least, the use of the VAR at the recently concluded FIFA Confederations Cup brought hopes of fairness. Certainly, one person can no longer be the reified master whose decision can spoil the day for the rest of us. At least, we saw the VAR correct the proverbial master in decisions about goals and about mistaken identity. The corrected decisions satisfied most of us, the neutrals. But then we also saw an inexplicable yellow card, instead of a red, issued to a Chilean player for a ghastly elbow foul and it made us question whether the VAR will be the El dorado that we all hope for.
But beyond the debate surrounding the VAR’s effectiveness, there are other issues that we all should worry about. These issues may even trump effectiveness for those who care. One of them is a question: Can Africa and the rest of football’s poor diffuse VAR across the land? We know that VAR will be part of Europe and the Americas. Sure, we will see its use when Chelsea confronts Arsenal or when Real Madrid battles against Borussia Dortmund. But will the VAR be there when Enugu Rangers goes against Nsukka Selected or Mbabane Swallows plays against Yanga of Tanzania?
Already, the Chairman of the Lagos State Referees in Nigeria, Moses Adebanjo captures the doubts. “I don’t know if we can see that innovation (VAR) soon enough in Nigeria because it costs about N50 million to install it in just one stadium, and you know how many stadiums we have in the country. We have about ten stadiums or more that host league games, so I have my doubts,” were his recent words. His fears are real. Yet, he is referring to stadiums that host games at the very top tier of Nigerian football. If Nigeria is a doubt for VAR, where does that leave countries like Chad, Niger Republic, and Eritrea? These are countries that have withdrawn from continental competitions, in the past, because of poor finances. Can they scrape enough funds to install the equipment for their local championships? That is the issue that FIFA, CAF, and the media have all largely ignored. At least, so far they have been ignored. None of those institutions has spoken loudly about affordability.
What is factual is that few African federations can bear the costs of installing VAR equipment in multiple locations for games. They barely can find funds to organize local competitions and, in some cases, to cater for their teams’ participation in continental competitions. This year, alone, Malawi’s national team threatened to withdraw from two continental competitions and the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) withdrew from one. Both cited lack of finances.
But it is not just about costs and doubts. There are questions about consistent power supply for the system, assurance that home teams will not collude to turn it off, and other possible concerns. These questions are not trivial. They speak to reality in the continent. In Nigeria, we know home teams have attacked television broadcasters for attempting to record home games, fearing that compromised referees may be exposed to the world. The VAR would do more damage to such referees and, thus, one wonders how those home teams will accept the laser eyes of the VAR.
Unfortunately, these critical issues have been muted during global discussions of VAR. Have African issues been forgotten again? Well, it seems like it. While the rest of the football world readies for advancement with goal line technology and the VAR, Africa may find itself stuck behind. For Africa, it is not a question about the effectiveness of VAR but a question of how far VAR can diffuse through the global football family.
May be CAF has a solution hidden inside the sleaves of its new President Ahmad Ahmad or just may be CAF has no answers. The world would like to know the solution. Perhaps, CAF will restrict the VAR’s use to the continental-level games or maybe CAF will demand its federations use VARs in local championships. Just make a public statement. Perhaps, FIFA will see it fit to designate another development fund strictly for procuring, installing, maintaining, and securing the VAR in all major stadia in Africa. I keep my fingers crossed that Ahmad Ahmad will find a way to keep the continent on pace with the rest of the world.