Controversy in the Libertadores? Normal service has been resumed
Boca’s brawl in Brazil stole the headlines this week...
After two months where the comings and goings of Argentina’s Copa América winners dominated the headlines, normal service has now resumed. Boca Juniors is now the only word on any football fan’s lips, after the giants crashed out of the Copa Libertadores in fiery, not to say highly controversial fashion.
Having seen Diego González’s goal in the first leg of their last-16 tie against Atlético Mineiro ruled out for a minute foul in the build-up, lightning struck twice for the Xeneize in the return match. González, moreover, was again in the thick of the action, as his offside knee was held up by referee Esteban Ostojich – instantly losing the hero status garnered thanks to his stern yet fair officiating in the Copa America final for half of the Argentine population at least – and VAR as sufficient motive to rule out Marcelo Weigandt’s close-range strike.
The rest is history. After three of the worst shoot-out penalties one is likely to see this year Boca were out of the running: an elimination that was marked by a running battle with police and security guards in the Estadio Mineirão tunnel, flying water dispensers and fire extinguishers and a night camped outside a Belo Horizonte police station as the guilty parties were obliged to give statements to the authorities before finally being released on bail.
Unsurprisingly, Boca’s official reaction to events preferred to dwell on the injustice of VAR rather than the chaotic scenes that followed.
“Boca Juniors suffered in this Copa Libertadores tie against Atlético Mineiro two inexplicable decisions overturning legal goals which have destroyed the sporting spirit of the continent’s most prestigious tournament,” a statement signed by club president Jorge Amor Ameal contended on Tuesday night. “Today our members, fans, players and coaching staff have been harmed in this foul manner, with this malicious and biased use of VAR technology. The events mark something which is unprecedented, the only case where a club has been eliminated from competition having won the two games of the tie.”
That last hyperbolic sentence aside, and whatever claims there may be over past refereeing decisions go their way, it is difficult not to objectively sympathise with Boca. To fall foul of VAR twice in as many games is unfortunate to say the least, even if both incidents, taken in isolation, were far from clear-cut either way. The real issue, putting aside the fantastical claims of CONMEBOL malevolence and anti-xeneize conspiracy, is one that continues to dog both Argentine and South American football – those charged with running it on the pitch are simply not up to the task.
From World Cup qualifying at the start of June, through the Copa América and now at the Libertadores, it has become clear that the implementation of VAR at a continental level is causing more problems than it solves. From interminable waits for decisions to mistakes as blatant as any that preceded the technology – aside from the Boca uproar, Uruguay were denied a clear goal against Paraguay due to a non-existent offside and Cerro Porteño suffered an almost identical fate against Fluminense last week – and the prevailing sensation that any decision is worth badgering the referee over in the hope that he will relent and turn to the cameras, the general opinion of match officials is likely as low as it ever has been. Perhaps the ongoing ban on supporters is in fact a blessing in disguise, as in this context it is easy to imagine how some of these decisions would have been received up in the stands.
One can only hope that these serious issues are merely teething pains for what remains a (relatively) new phenomenon, and that with practice and experience both referees and those stuck up in the VAR cabin become more proficient both with their rulings and, almost as importantly, how they are decided and relayed to players and fans alike. That moment, though, feels a long way off, and as long as the current malaise with officials persists the prospect of horrendous outbursts like that in the Mineirão will remain a danger.