THE Champions League exploded into life this week, with dramatic and unlikely wins for a wonderful Ajax team over Real Madrid, and then the last-gasp comeback triumph for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s resurgent Manchester United against Paris Saint Germain.

At the heart of the drama which unfolded on screens all over the world was VAR, the video assistant referee system which was decisive not only in those matches, but also late on in extra-time of the titanic battle between Porto and Roma.

This column isn’t intended to debate the merits of whether VAR helped the on-pitch officials get these major decisions correct, because frankly, it isn’t altogether clear whether it did or not. The handball and penalty that was awarded against PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe split opinion straight away, notably in the BT studio, broadly between former players and referees. The likes of Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand felt it was never a spot kick, even allowing for the former United centre-back’s obvious leanings, while former referee Peter Walton felt it was.

What seems to have swayed match referee, Slovenian Damir Skomina, away from the letter of the law as it stands in disregarding the lack of movement from the hand towards the ball, is guidance from UEFA head of referees Robert Rosetti.

Rosetti spelled out earlier this year that in the Champions League, referees would be adopting a stricter stance with handball, penalising players if they were attempting to block a shot by spreading their body or making it bigger, regardless of intent to touch the ball with their hand.

It could hardly be argued that Kimpembe meant to handball Diego Dalot’s shot given his back was turned, but certainly, you could argue he spread his body and that once he had turned his back to the ball, it was then left to fate where it would hit him.

The point is it is still a subjective call, and patently not a clear and obvious error by the official. The incident neatly illustrated why VAR will not be the panacea to rid football of erroneous decisions that it is often wrongly made out to be.

After the World Cup, where VAR got off to a shaky start but then added drama and wholly helped referees make correct calls when they had made obvious errors, I was broadly in favour of it being rolled out here. But after watching how it has been implemented this week, there is a growing unease that what it takes from the game is a price simply not worth paying for the return of correcting often marginal or debatable calls.

Go back to Tuesday night, and Ajax’s third goal at the Bernabeu, for the perfect case in point. Ajax full-back Noussair Mazraoui strained to keep a ball in play, and from there, the Dutch masters put together a sweeping move that ended with the imperious Dusan Tadic curling the ball into the top corner. It was a thrilling moment in every sense, from the flowing build-up play to the pinpoint finish.

The quality of the goal and the shock value of the reigning European champions going three down would have brought an involuntary reaction from even casual observers, never mind the spontaneous outpouring of joy that came from the thousands of Ajax supporters present and watching back in Amsterdam. It is moments like those that make you fall in love with football and make it so special. It is a feeling that most other sports can only dream of replicating, and as a football fan, you couldn’t help but smile and be happy for those Ajax supporters celebrating in that moment. But then, the wind was sucked from them as the referee signalled the goal would be subject of a VAR review.

Not for an obvious error, such as a clear offside or a handball in the build-up to the goal, but to check whether the ball had gone out of play 60 yards, four passes and fully 15 seconds back up the pitch.

Four interminable minutes passed as the referee checked the replay over and over again before the call was made – one still being questioned by Real Madrid – that the whole ball had in fact not crossed the touchline. Here’s a hint; if it takes four minutes to review a decision, then perhaps it is not a clear and obvious error after all.

Eventually, Ajax fans could celebrate that the goal was set in stone, but as delirious as they were, that initial out-of-body moment had long gone.

The danger with VAR is that moment might be lost forever to the game, as fans wait to see if a goal is going to stand before celebrating. When your team score a goal like the one Ajax did, it is not the time for thinking, or for checking yourself. It is a time for losing it, for letting yourself go and getting utterly caught up in the moment.

If we lose that from football, then what are we left with? The more we see of VAR, the more it feels we are not as much selling the game’s soul for a hill of beans, but paying a fortune for the privilege.


ONE of Alex McLeish’s most endearing qualities is his optimism, but I can’t help but feel the Scotland manager’s upbeat appraisal of the prospects of a full squad turning up for the trip to Kazakhstan and San Marino later this month may be misplaced.

There is the small matter of an Old Firm match the weekend after the game in Rimini, and you don’t have to look too far into the past for an example of key players from both sides being withheld with that match in mind, as was the case when Big Eck’s men were turned over in Tbilisi by Georgia in 2007.

With the UEFA Nations League success though and some momentum finally building, hopefully history won’t repeat itself.