Video review came to soccer promising to overturn clear and obvious errors. It was a safety net for referees, and that, we were told, was the extent of its domain. Video assistants would not re-referee the game; VAR was, in theory, a new-age mechanism to undo controversy and better the sport.
But half a decade later, as West Ham furiously alleged on Saturday, it is not doing any of that.
Or, rather, it is doing far too much. VAR's biggest fault has been overstepping its bounds, as it did at Stamford Bridge in a controversial Chelsea win. The Blues had come from behind to lead 2-1. West Ham equalized, and celebrated unreservedly — only to have the goal and the joy nullified by VAR.
At the final whistle, West Ham manager David Moyes stalked toward the referees, and tried to contain himself; he tried to turn away; but he couldn't. He was enraged.
Players were almost as bewildered as they were angry and aggrieved. "That’s up there with one of the worst VAR decisions made since it’s come into the game," captain Declan Rice wrote on Twitter.
He called it a "shambles." Moyes called it "scandalous and absolutely rotten."
"The goalkeeper spills it and it comes too far off him to recover it. Jarrod jumps over him and his trailing foot is there, but the goalkeeper could never get the ball."
The Boss' thoughts on today's match at Stamford Bridge:#CHEWHU pic.twitter.com/wZ2m9aDzqL
— West Ham United (@WestHam) September 3, 2022
The decision itself was questionable. Chelsea argued that Jarrod Bowen clattered into goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, rending him incapable of reacting to the Maxwel Cornet shot that, for a couple minutes, stood as the equalizer. "From my point of view," Chelsea defender Ben Chilwell said postgame, "it was a foul."
West Ham argued that Mendy's writhing response was theatrical; that this type of clash happens regularly in the penalty box; and that, because it is accidental and mostly inconsequential, it goes uncalled.
"I think he fakes an injury, he fakes a shoulder injury," Moyes said of Mendy.
— Lucas Frank (@LUCASFRANKSSS) September 3, 2022
Neither argument is objectively correct. What's clear and obvious, though, is that there is nothing clear and obvious about this incident. "The referee made the correct decision," Moyes pointed out. There was no call on the field.
He assumed that when the ref, Andy Madley, jogged over to a pitch-side monitor to review it, "there's no way" that he would overturn it. Using the "clear and obvious" threshold, he shouldn't have.
But Madley, in consultation with the video assistant, did.
"I can't see, for the life of me, how he could chop the goal off," Moyes said.
Moyes said he had "lost faith" in refereeing.
“I question VAR today as much as the referee," he added. "I’m actually more embarrassed for the guy at VAR than I am even for the referee, because that’s telling me somebody who doesn’t understand football and shouldn’t be near it if they think that was enough to send the referee to the screen.
“I have had a look at three or four angles and there is no excuse for VAR," Moyes fumed. "Today there is no excuse for that not to be a goal. None at all."
The problem, of course, is that multiple officials are now refereeing every game, dissecting it in realtime and in slow motion, searching not for obvious errors but for any type of foul. The problem is that VAR has strayed from its original mission, and for players, it's infuriating.
"You put your all in on the pitch," West Ham striker Michail Antonio wrote on Twitter, "and for it to be decided like that, just doesn’t feel right."