Love it or loathe it, VAR is now an established part of the modern game, and this very week marks the fifth anniversary of the first time a top-flight professional league match was overseen by the video assistant referee system.
That milestone moment in soccer history took place on April 7, 2017 when Melbourne City played Adelaide United in Australia’s A-League. City won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Tim Cahill and no thanks at all to VAR, which was not called upon at all during the match.
The very first intervention made by VAR came the following day when it was used to pick up a handball in the 1-1 draw between Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC. The infringement was spotted and adjudicated accordingly, leading to a penalty being awarded to Sydney that was subsequently converted.
In the intervening five years, VAR has gone to the very top of the game, having an influence on the results of World Cup and Champions League finals. Countless matches in competitions all over the world have been either aided or — depending on your own opinion of the controversial officiating tool — blighted by its involvement.
With half a decade of usage to reflect on here, in chronological order, are some of the very wildest moments caused by the implementation VAR so far — from decisions that left all involved baffled right through to those which sparked outright chaos.
It’s worth noting that by “wild moments” we’re not talking about common contentious fouls and free kicks, nor are we raking back through all the countless times players have been adjudged to be fractionally offside at an atomic level. Instead we focus on some of the notable occurrences when VAR intervention has led truly baffling scenes to break out during a football match.
Five minutes of mayhem (Tottenham Hotspur vs. Rochdale, FA Cup)
VAR was first trialled in England in its cup competitions during the 2017-18 season, and it wasn’t long before things went hopelessly awry as Tottenham welcomed League One opponents Rochdale to their temporary home of Wembley for an FA Cup fifth-round replay on a snowy evening in February 2018. After already having an early Erik Lamela goal disallowed following a lengthy VAR review, Spurs were soon tripped up by the new replay system again shortly after taking the lead midway through the first half.
The chaos began when Mauricio Pochettino’s side were initially awarded an attacking free kick when Kieran Trippier was pulled down on the edge of the Rochdale box. However, this was upgraded to a penalty after referee Paul Tierney consulted VAR and adjudged that contact had continued into the area, as per the laws. It took the team of officials a significant period of deliberation to reach the verdict and, with no information on the stoppage forthcoming, baffled fans inside the national stadium were left to work out for themselves what was going on.
Son Heung-Min eventually stepped up to convert the penalty but Spurs’ celebrations were cut short almost immediately when Tierney blew his whistle again, this time to disallow the goal because the South Korean came to a complete stop before kicking the ball. Son was then booked and the penalty chalked off entirely without being allowed to be retaken, thus meaning that the original infringement — a free kick to Tottenham — had somehow transformed into a Rochdale free kick over the course of five minutes.
History was made in the Bundesliga in April 2018 when Mainz were awarded a penalty during half-time of their match against Freiburg. The referee had signalled the end of the first half and sent the players to their dressing rooms after Mainz had a penalty appeal turned down when right-back Daniel Brosinski‘s cross deflected off Freiburg centre-back Marc-Oliver Kempf‘s hand and was saved by goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow.
As the players headed for the locker rooms, referee Guido Winkmann ran over to the other side of the pitch to watch the replay on a monitor. He awarded the hosts a penalty, recalling the entire Freiburg side and the handful of Mainz players who had left the pitch.
Six minutes after the half-time whistle had blown, Pablo de Blasis scored the penalty to put Mainz 1-0 up. He added a second to seal a 2-0 win, though only after the start of the second half was delayed as ground staff had to clear reams of toilet roll thrown on to the pitch by irate Freiburg fans during the break.
VAR malfunction decides title (Melbourne Victory vs. Newcastle Jets, A-League)
One of the most costly VAR fails ever came during the A-League Grand Final in May 2018, when a total catastrophe befell the system during Australia’s biggest game of the season.
Nine minutes into the title decider, the VAR camera feed went offline for roughly 30 seconds, during which Melbourne Victory managed to score a goal against Newcastle Jets. Television replays showed that the goal was clearly offside, but the VAR system could not be deployed to rectify the situation. Alas, by the time the technical staff managed to get the VAR camera back online the game had resumed and it was too late to review the phase of play in question so the Victory goal was allowed to stand.
Kosta Barbarouses’ decisive strike proved to be the only goal in a game which Victory fans still refer to as “the heist in the Hunter” — a reference to one of the McDonald Jones Stadium’s former names.
What’s the score? (Tottenham Hotspur vs. Watford, Premier League)
Tottenham once again found themselves on the wrong end of a chaotic VAR episode then they played host to Watford on New Year’s Day of 2019. Trailing 0-1 since the sixth minute of the match following Abdoulaye Doucoure‘s opener, Spurs finally looked to have broken through the Hornets’ blockade in the 86th minute when Dele Alli sprang to score a late equaliser. However, celebrations were muted while the goal was checked by VAR for a possible handball by Alli in the build-up.
With most people inside the stadium already at a loss as to what was going on, the confusion was ramped up several notches when Alli’s goal was simultaneously given by the referee AND declared to have been disallowed by a message on the big screens around the ground. The game then resumed for its final few minutes, and full-time came with most in attendance utterly clueless as to what the final score was (1-1).
Penalty conceded while scoring a goal (SPAL vs. Fiorentina, Serie A)
SPAL had every right to feel aggrieved in February 2019 when they saw what might have been a winning goal against Fiorentina chalked off by VAR. The hosts thought midfielder Mattia Valoti had put them 2-1 up against La Viola in the 77th minute, only for referee Luca Pairetto to intervene and rather sour the moment. Attention was drawn to a foul made at the opposite end of the pitch in a previous phase of play in which Fiorentina forward Federico Chiesa was felled in the SPAL penalty box several minutes earlier.
As such, following a VAR review, the referee cancelled out SPAL’s goal and instead awarded a penalty to Fiorentina, which Jordan Veretout dispatched to put the away side 2-1 up in a remarkable turnaround. Fiorentina went on to win the match 4-1 thanks to additional goals from Giovanni Simeone and Gerson scored in the final 10 minutes, leaving SPAL to wonder what might have been.
Rules changed halfway through tournament (Women’s World Cup)
Temporary dispensation: no cautions for goalkeeper encroachment during Kicks from the Penalty Mark at the @FIFAWWC 2019.
— The IFAB (@TheIFAB) June 21, 2019
As if major international tournaments aren’t stressful enough, football’s lawmakers the International Football Association Board (IFAB) decided to add an extra layer of pressure to the 2019 Women’s World Cup by changing the rules regarding penalties halfway through the competition. The tournament had seen several goalkeepers shown yellow cards while facing penalty kicks after being flagged by VAR for moving off their line a fraction too early, resulting in the kicks being retaken. After a succession of controversial incidents during the group stage, the IFAB approved an emergency request from FIFA to make a “temporary dispensation” to the law, thus granting ‘keepers a reprieve of sorts.
As such, the temporary dispensation removed the need for referees to issue mandatory yellow cards for encroachment on the basis that the presence of VAR alone should be enough to deter keepers from jumping the gun — apart from during penalty shootouts, when the original law would still apply. Clear as day, then.
Referee caught using ‘fake VAR’ (Always Ready vs. Bolivar, Bolivian Liga)
This is incredible. In added time in Bolivia, referee goes to sidelines to make decision to award Always Ready against Bolívar. Signals decision to award penalty using VAR signal. The Bolivian league doesn’t have VAR technology. The penalty was not scored.pic.twitter.com/dKMoEHcHXk
— Colin Millar (@Millar_Colin) August 3, 2019
Footage of entire incident (via @gbobadi), showing the chaotic seasons and subsequently missed penalty. But check out how far the Bolívar defender has run into the box before penalty is taken.pic.twitter.com/ccf6bBfni4
— Colin Millar (@Millar_Colin) August 3, 2019
Always Ready were trailing 1-0 as they entered the final few seconds of added time in their game against Bolivar in August 2019. In a desperate attempt to score an equaliser, they appealed to referee Raul Orosco for a penalty following an aerial clash inside the area. Orosco went over to the sidelines to watch a replay of the incident. Content with what he’d seen on the monitor, the official then returned to the pitch to award the penalty while making the requisite “VAR” hand gesture. However, it was at this point it dawned on Orosco that VAR hadn’t actually been implemented in the Bolivian Primera Division and so he tried to transform his “TV screen” signal into a hurried point toward his earpiece instead.
The awarding of the penalty sparked chaos as both sets of players and coaching staff argued on the field for a full 10 minutes, with many repeating the “VAR” gesture as they demanded answers. Eventually, sufficient order was restored to allow Always Ready to finally take their controversial spot kick, which hit the post.
Conceding a penalty when you’re an unused substitute (Holstein Kiel vs. VfL Bochum, 2.Bundesliga)
With minutes to go before half-time in the German second-tier clash between Holstein Kiel and VfL Bochum in October 2019, midfielder Michael Eberwein was busy limbering up with the rest of the Kiel subs behind his side’s goal when he made the fatal error of stopping a wayward shot before the ball had gone all the way off the pitch. VAR spotted that this innocent error was in direct contravention of the laws of the game governing substitutes interfering with play, and asked the referee to come over to consult the footage. Sure enough, a penalty was awarded to Bochum and Eberwein was shown a yellow card.
Bochum striker Silvere Ganvoula M’boussy, whose shot off target had sparked the furore, stepped up to convert the penalty. Just to make matters worse, Eberwein had yet to make his debut for Kiel at the time, meaning that he’d also managed to concede a spot kick without making a single appearance for the club. As yet another bitter digestif for Kiel, the German FA (DFB) consulted with the IFAB on the decision and were told that, whilst the referee should have initially given the penalty, the incident did not qualify as an “exceptional circumstance” which justified an intervention by VAR, meaning the spot kick really should not have been awarded.
The decision that forced a rule change (Tottenham vs. Newcastle United, Premier League)
Spurs (them again) found themselves subjected to a decision so ludicrous that it actually helped bring about a change in the way the Premier League interpreted the law. After falling into line with the rest of Europe and adopting a stricter application of handball, the opening weeks of the 2020-21 Premier League season had already been littered with controversial decisions. Then came the case of Eric Dier.
Spurs were leading by a single Lucas Moura goal against Newcastle as the September fixture entered added time, only for the visitors to be gifted the very softest of penalties when Dier leapt for a header alongside Andy Carroll. The Newcastle striker won the duel and nudged the ball innocuously against the Spurs defender’s flailing arm while he had his back turned.
Referee Peter Bankes initially missed the non-incident but VAR was on hand to draw his attention to an infringement of the newly implemented (and much-maligned) handball law stating that any ball-to-hand contact in the area might be penalised regardless of whether said contact is intentional or otherwise. Clauses seven and eight of the law were invoked as Dier’s “hand/arm was above/beyond his shoulder level.”
Callum Wilson scored his penalty to rescue an unlikely point for Newcastle. However, with frustrations from all quarters already high, the outcry over the decision to punish Dier caused the Premier League to roll back its change and apply a far more liberal interpretation of handball inside the penalty area.
The IFAB then tweaked the law the following March, some six months later. The IFAB’s new incarnation of the rule dictated that handballs would only be given when the arm is completely away for the body and could not be justifiable by the way the player is moving, for instance jumping like Dier was in order for a foul to be given — which is actually remarkably similar to the way the law worked before they changed it in the first place.
In a truly baffling turn of events, Manchester United strayed even beyond the constraints of “Fergie Time” to score their late winner against Brighton in the Premier League back in September 2020.
The game looked to be over and done when Solly March scored a 95th-minute equaliser for the Seagulls to make the score 2-2 at the Amex Stadium. However, there was still time for one last twist when United were awarded a penalty AFTER the full-time whistle had sounded. Confusion reigned as referee Chris Kavanagh blew for full-time following a late United corner, only for VAR to ask the official to review a replay of the action in the box. In doing so, Kavanagh noticed an unfortunate handball from Brighton striker Neal Maupay and awarded a penalty to United.
A prime example of VAR being applied too fastidiously came during a game between Crystal Palace and Leeds at Selhurst Park in November 2020. In fine form at the time, Patrick Bamford appeared to have found the net for Leeds once again when he broke the Palace line to score an equaliser for his side with 17 minutes played.
Patrick Bramford offside because of the change in the handball law. Because you can now pay the ball with the top part of your arm the outstretched arm played him offside. This was onside last season to the armpit. #CRYLEE pic.twitter.com/EezUHdxIYQ
— Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN) November 7, 2020
However, the goal was ruled out when VAR deemed Bamford had been offside in the build-up because the striker pointed where he wanted the ball played despite the rest of his body being onside at the time the pass was played. Strictly speaking the decision was correct to the letter of the law as Bamford had pointed using a portion of his arm that he could legally score a goal with, but still…
Palace went on to win the game 4-1.
Fans destroy VAR equipment (Gremio vs. Palmeiras, Brazilian Serie A)
???? ????????????????????????́????????????: hinchas de Gremio invadieron el campo de juego y destrozaron la cabina del VAR
???? Fue después de perder por 3-1 contra Palmeiras por el Brasileirao: el equipo está 19° y en zona de descenso pic.twitter.com/IWaNA4YCal
— Diario Olé (@DiarioOle) October 31, 2021
Languishing near the bottom of the table and threatened by relegation, Gremio fans thought their team had hauled their way back into a game against Palmeiras in October 2021 when a potentially crucial equaliser made it 2-2. The swell of optimism quickly gave way to despair when a VAR review disallowed the goal and Gremio went on to slump to a 3-1 defeat in front of their own supporters.
It all proved too much for some fans, who decided to rush on to the pitch and take out their frustrations on the technical equipment that had so harshly robbed them.
On Jan. 27, 2022, Brazil goalkeeper Alisson became the first player to be shown two red cards in the same game and still complete the full match after being spared twice by the VAR. The Liverpool shot-stopper was shown his first red card for a high boot in the 25th minute and then another in stoppage time for knocking striker Ayrton Preciado to the ground while attempting to punch the ball clear.
However, both decisions were overturned after the referee consulted VAR, thus allowing Alisson to finish the game despite being “sent off” twice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was more than happy to sing the praises of the video replay system.
“I think this was the first time this has happened in the history of football,” Alisson said after the match. “I think that I acted properly in the moves and I think my teammates helped me a lot, they were incisive in their complaints to the referee. This shows once again the importance of using VAR in football. I am happy with the VAR, if it wasn’t for the VAR we’d have been punished unfairly.”
VAR official hung out to dry (Torino vs. Inter Milan, Serie A)
Tempers flared in Serie A last month when mid-table Torino played host to title-chasing Inter Milan at the Stadio Olimpico in Piedmont. Without a win in eight games, the home side defied expectations when Brazilian defender Bremer propelled them in front with an early opener after just 12 minutes. The Granata then carved out a good chance to put themselves further ahead when forward Andrea Belotti found himself clean through on goal only to be upended by the outstretched limb of Inter centre-back Andrea Ranocchia inside the penalty area.
Understandably, Torino appealed in unison only for referee Marco Guida to instruct Belotti to get to his feet. Then, following a brief consultation with VAR official Davide Massa via his headset, Guida was content to let play continue without so much as a pitchside review. In the meanwhile, replays had revealed that Ranocchia had indeed clearly knocked the goal-bound Belotti off his feet before then playing the ball. The game finished 1-1 thanks to a dramatic 93rd-minute equaliser for Inter scored by Alexis Sanchez which, naturally, didn’t do anything to calm the incandescent ire of Torino coach Ivan Juric.
“It was a clear penalty and nobody understands why it wasn’t awarded. I am sure they will try to explain it, but they can’t,” Juric fumed after the final whistle. “It completely ruined the game, as we would’ve been 2-0 up.”
The reaction was as we get in the PL.
Torino coach: “It’s the latest situation of many when we were penalised. This one is completely inexplicable. It was a clear penalty and nobody understands why it wasn’t awarded. I am sure they will try to explain it, but they can’t.” pic.twitter.com/TlK2GhXSz3
— Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN) March 14, 2022
The Italian press were equally flabbergasted with Tuttosport even awarding referee Guida 0/10 for his performance and branding the turn of events in Turin as a “scandal.” Such was the controversy surrounding the errant penalty decision that Serie A themselves stepped in and attempted to diffuse the situation by allowing the Italian Referees’ Association (AIA) to release the audio log of the chat between Guida and his VAR official, Massa. “Ball! Ball! Yes, he got the ball, carry on,” was the message delivered directly into the ear of the referee.
The AIA then proceeded to lay blame squarely at Massa’s feet for making what they called a “serious error,” with refereeing designator Gianluca Rocchi stating that Massa “should have looked more carefully at the footage” before advising Guida to allow play to continue.
Amid calls for Guida to be banned and/or dropped as a Serie A ref altogether over the incident, Rocchi made sure to add that the AIA wouldn’t be prepared to “lose such a good referee over [the error].” Still, neither Guida nor Massa have been assigned to officiate a domestic match since the Torino-Inter VAR farce as the fallout continues to simmer away.
ESPN’s Dale Johnson contributed to this report