Ecstatic joy, then intangible disappointment. City fans were left devastated after VAR had overruled what looked like their winner in one of the most thrilling Champions League quarter-finals the competition has seen for a while. Raheem Sterling, in world-class form for weeks and months, had just given Man City a 5:4 lead on aggregate, completing his hattrick on the night and a remarkable comeback after losing at Tottenham’s new ground and going behind in the second leg as well. The game itself, tied on 2:2 after only eleven minutes, was incredible. But the the finish and all the drama related to it was overwhelming and cruel at the same time, yet somehow novel in the way it was build up. For VAR had a hand in both goals that decided this game – only that one wasn’t going to stand. These decisions are worth millions.
A fair way to decide a game?
The decisions of the VAR may not always be of such magnitude or significance. But even in the other Champions League quarter-final of the night, Porto vs Liverpool, the first goal was only awarded – it was initially chalked off for offside – after VAR gave the green light. And it was awarded rightly so. It ended all of Porto’s hopes, though and took their momentum away.
In the Man City vs Tottenham game the system took control twice. In the 73rd minute, Spurs were in desperate need of a goal and, a bit out of the blue, they got it as Fernando Llorente somehow bundled home from a corner. Amid the celebrations, referee Cüneyt Çakır got the information that VAR would make a check – and he even went to the pitchside monitor to analyse the scene himself, because there was a hint that Llorente had touched the ball with his wrist in the slightest of contacts before it hit his hip and went in. After a long check, Çakır eventually gave the goal as he had before. After that, City attacked the Spurs defence again and again without finding a breaktrough. Then came the 93rd minute, in which Sterling “scored“. Without VAR, City would have been awarded that goal and would now face Ajax Amsterdam in the semis. But VAR entered the CL in the knockout stages this season and it intervened to righly disallow the goal as Bernardo Silva had directed a mishit pass from Eriksen into the path of Agüero – who was offside.
The outcome of the game was emotionally challenging, even for fans not connected to either side. Yet, it also has consequences for the clubs. Man City’s dream of achieving an unprecedented quadruple is over, while Tottenham can still dream of winning a first ever Champions League crown. Plus, going through and going out decides over revenue the teams take from the competition.
Fine margins and big differences
Reaching the latter stages of the Champions League means more income for the current campaign. This season, the competition will distribute 2,04 billion Euro. Any team in the group stages pockets 15,25 million Euro, a win is worth another 2,7 million. But the big money is in the knockout stages. You’ll earn 9,5 million for the round of the last 16, another 10,5 for the quarter-final and 12 million for the semis. The final itself adds 15 million to the contestants’ accounts and the winner gets another four million, while playing in the UEFA Super Cup gets you 3,5 million with a further million in sight for the winner of that game.
This means, Man City miss out on quite a few revenue opportunities due to the VAR decisions; not that they couldn’t compensate it. For Tottenham Hotspur, a team and club in the ascendant for years, it means more money to spend or reinvest. These big Premier League clubs might consider those amounts peanuts, but Ajax could think differently – and imagine a small club getting there. And picture it: such fine margins make the difference. Agüero was ruled offside, but only because Silva just about touched the ball from Eriksen. Llorente however might have touched the incoming ball with the hair on his wrists and maybe another ref would have disallowed the goal. Yes, these decisions have been there ever since. But with games in competitions like the Champions League and winning them being so worthwile and with the introduction of VAR, that very system does impose itself as a discerning and decisive feature.
Some say it’s for the better, because it is fair – most of the time. For it still needs people to run it and they can make mistakes, too. It will probably get better with time, but the debate about it will go on. What strikes one as odd, though, is that the Europa League doesn’t have VAR. Eintracht Frankfurt took advantage of that in their quarter-final comeback win over Benfica Lisbon, as their first goal was scored from an offside position. To keep the football ecosystem fair, VAR should be used in every competition.
The money and the feelings
Spurs have pocketed just over 60 million Euro from the Champions League last season, when they went out in the round of the last 16. That amount is going to be bigger this year. Thanks to their great performances and a little bit to the VAR as well. The revenue might be a factor that isn’t always focused when the VAR is discussed, but it’s a pivotal component. Seemingly, the emotional aspect of football outweighs such thinking, that is the main objective for clubs as brands, at times. Interruptions like in the Man City vs Tottenham game can be annoying and they can surely dash emotions – at least for the moment. But the VAR is also able to create a whole new level of emotional roller coasters.
We’ve seen that now, dreams crumble, frustration vanishes within the blink of an eye, when the screen in the stadium tells you about the decision by VAR. It could decide over managers’ futures, over revenue streams and transfer money, over comeback of thes season or another year of pain. In the end, VAR is just a system to aid the referees and it’s only a small part of the game. Is it fair, is it authentic, is it good for football? Jury’s still out, but it’s certainly a game changer – and there to stay.