It’s six years since the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) arrived in soccer. Today it is, for better or for worse, fully woven into the fabric of the game around the world.
Before 2017, football was so much simpler. When a referee made a decision, it really was final. Fans could celebrate goals without fear, or waiting ages for replays. Supporters didn’t need a geometry degree to understand the offside law. And they didn’t have to put up with interminable discussions about almost every decision made by a referee.
Goal-line technology came first in 2012, and it proved to be a noninvasive, near-instant solution to a well-established problem. VAR is a different proposition altogether, and it has changed the way games are played, refereed, watched and talked about.
We were told VAR was brought in to stop the howlers that had changed the course of soccer history. The game has experienced countless examples of injustice through the years, from the clearest example of handball you’ll ever see in Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup, to the reason goal-line technology was brought in: Frank Lampard’s goal-that-never-was against Germany in 2010.
ESPN has taken some of the most glaring incidents from history and looked at them through the prism of VAR. Some are lesser known than others, but their impact could have changed the career path of the players, managers and teams involved.
Champions League 2004: FC Porto vs. Man United
Jose Mourinho’s whole career path changes
What happened? Jose Mourinho is one of soccer’s defining characters of the past 20 years, a manager who has dominated headlines and, for a time at least, was arguably the best in the world. But in March 2004, Mourinho was a virtual nobody … until one iconic celebration captured the imagination of European football.
FC Porto had appointed Mourinho in 2002 after he’d had short spells in charge of Benfica and unfashionable Uniao Leiria. In his first full season, Mourinho led Porto to the league title by a margin of 11 points, plus UEFA Cup success, but he wasn’t remotely a household name outside his own country.
Then, in the 2003-04 season, Porto were paired with Manchester United in the Champions League round of 16. Few gave the Portuguese much of a chance — even after Mourinho had masterminded a 2-1 first-leg victory to take to Old Trafford. Many felt it wouldn’t be enough against Sir Alex Ferguson’s great side on their own turf.
Paul Scholes levelled the tie on aggregate in the 32nd minute, and United were on track to advance on away goals until the last minute. Phil Neville was penalised for a foul on Edgaras Jankauskas; goalkeeper Tim Howard failed to hold Benni McCarthy’s free kick, and Costina netted the rebound. Porto had shocked United and beaten them 3-2 on aggregate in the final moments.
In a now-iconic celebration, an exuberant Mourinho raced down the touchline toward his players, arms aloft, jumping and punching the air.
It proved to be the catalyst for a remarkable Champions League success for Porto. After ousting Lyon and Deportivo La Coruña, they beat AS Monaco 3-0 in the final. To this day, Porto remain the only club from outside of Europe’s top five leagues to win the European Cup since Ajax in 1995. It propelled Mourinho into the stratosphere.
At the end of the season he moved to Chelsea, becoming the first coach appointed by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich after his takeover of the west London club. Mourinho went on to win the Premier League title three times, the FA Cup and two League Cups. Then, after Chelsea, Mourinho won the Champions League and Serie A with Internazionale, the LaLiga title with Real Madrid, the Europa League at Manchester United and the UEFA Europa Conference League with AS Roma.
Would Mourinho be the ‘Special One’ if VAR denied Porto’s UCL win?
Dale Johnson joins The Gab & Juls Show to wonder how Jose Mourinho’s career would differ if VAR had existed in his 2004 UCL win.
What could have happened? On the stroke of halftime at Old Trafford, Porto failed to clear the ball successfully and John O’Shea played it back toward the six-yard box. Scholes was there to ram home the ricochet from point-blank range, but the flag went up for offside. The goal was disallowed.
Replays showed it was a terrible decision by the assistant referee, with Scholes clearly in an onside position when O’Shea touched the ball. The goal undoubtedly would have stood with VAR, and United would have gone 2-0 up on the night, and a goal in front on aggregate. Ferguson surely would have been able to see out the game, and Porto would have been eliminated from the competition in March.
The small margins of an assistant’s flag helped to map out Mourinho’s future.
There would have been no iconic run up the touchline for Mourinho, no shock Champions League success, and probably no summer move to Chelsea either. The “Special One” wouldn’t have had the chance to utter those famous words in his first news conference in England. Who knows, if he’d stayed at Porto and they’d had a poor start to 2004-05, he may even have drifted back to midlevel Portuguese football. And indeed, would Abramovich’s Chelsea have embarked on such a period of success without him?
World Cup 2002: United States vs. Germany
USMNT make final after handball howler
What happened? The United States enjoyed their greatest-ever World Cup campaign in 2002, emerging from a group which included co-hosts South Korea, Poland and Luis Figo’s Portugal. Victory over old Concacaf enemies Mexico in the round of 16 sent the U.S. into the quarterfinals for the first time in the modern era (when reaching the semifinals in 1930, only 13 nations took part.) But their journey may not have ended there had VAR been around to correct a crucial error.
At the Munsu Cup Stadium in Ulsan, the U.S. came up against Germany, historically a powerhouse of the game but a team that had struggled in recent years and had been knocked out in the group stage of Euro 2000, failing to win a match.
The U.S. were trailing 1-0 to Michael Ballack’s first-half goal when, in the 50th minute, they won a corner. Claudio Reyna delivered from the right, the ball was flicked on at the near post, and Gregg Berhalter (now manager of the USMNT) stuck out a boot to beat goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, but it was stopped on the line by Torsten Frings.
The U.S. players were furious, convinced that Frings had used his arm to stop the ball.
Would the USMNT have made it to the 2002 World Cup final if VAR existed?
Herculez Gomez debates whether VAR would have made a difference in the USMNT’s World Cup quarterfinal loss vs. Germany.
What could have happened? It was a certain goal but for the intervention of Frings’ hand, and the VAR would have sent referee Hugh Dallas to the monitor. If the ball is stopped from entering the goal by the use of the hand, that player must be sent off and a spot kick awarded to the opposition.
The U.S. had been denied the chance to level the score, against 10 men as well, with the momentum to reach the semifinals behind them. They could have beaten Germany, and lying in wait in the semifinals would have been South Korea, with the two teams already having played out a 1-1 draw in the group stage. Coach Bruce Arena would have had a real shot of making it to the World Cup final, where they would have come up against Brazil.
The hand of Frings, missed by referee Dallas, had effectively ended the United States’ World Cup journey.
By 2002, the USWNT had already won the Women’s World Cup twice. Having the men’s team reach the World Cup final could have made a huge difference to soccer in the country. Since that day, the U.S. men have not even reached the quarterfinals again, let alone get close to the final.
2011-12 Premier League: Man United vs. Wigan
Man United delay Man City’s domination by winning title
What happened: The 2011-12 season was a watershed moment in the modern game. It was the first time Manchester City won the Premier League title following the takeover by Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and it marked the beginning of a new era of dominance.
City’s first league title in 44 years came from one of the most iconic passages of play English football has ever seen. Needing a victory to secure top spot on goal difference over Manchester United, City were losing 2-1 at home to 10-man Queens Park Rangers two minutes into stoppage time. But up stepped Edin Dzeko (90+2) and Sergio Agüero (90+4) to win not only the game, but also the Premier League.
But a month beforehand, City had enjoyed a huge stroke of luck which was just as important in their eventual title win.
On April 11, Manchester United sat on top of the table when they made the short trip to Wigan Athletic. Ferguson’s men had won eight games in a row and had picked up 34 of an available 36 from their previous 12 games. They were in imperious form and seemingly on the march to another championship.
Wigan scored first through Shaun Maloney five minutes after halftime, with United then pushing for a way back into the game.
In the 71st minute, Phil Jones collected the ball on the right wing and crossed into the box. Wigan defender Maynor Figueroa had moved into position to stop the delivery, but the ball hit his outstretched left arm before going behind, with referee Phil Dowd and his assistant signaling for a corner kick.
United’s players were incensed, with Jones, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia going over to the assistant to protest, adamant they should have been given a spot kick. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and play continued with the corner.
United couldn’t find an equaliser and suffered a 1-0 defeat, costing them three vital points in the title race.
What if VAR handed Man City’s first PL title to Man United?
On The Gab and Juls Show, Dale Johnson wonders how Man City and Man United would look now if City never won their first PL title.
What could have happened? There’s no doubt it was handball, with Figueroa blocking the path of the ball into the area with an outstretched arm. Figueroa was virtually doing a star jump, with his arms away from his body, and there’s no doubt that the VAR would have told the referee he had missed a penalty.
If the resulting spot kick had been scored, it would have turned a loss into at least draw and given United the extra point they needed to be champions at the end of the season.
There would have been no “Agueroooooo” moment, no last-gasp title win for the ages.
Such was City’s new financial power that they were always going to go on to have success, but United winning the Premier League in 2012 could have changed the destiny of several clubs. With a 13th title secured, Sir Alex may well have walked away from Old Trafford there and then, rather than managing on through 2012-13 to make sure he left on a high by winning the league that season.
And it was United’s business in the summer of 2012 that affected other clubs, most notably Arsenal.
United took advantage of Robin van Persie moving into the last year of his contract with the Gunners to woo him away from the Emirates, and he scored 26 goals in 38 Premier League matches to win the Golden Boot and fire United to the title by 11 points. The Gunners just sneaked into the Champions League via the playoff round but suffered an eighth consecutive trophyless campaign. Had Sir Alex have won the league in 2012, perhaps he would have walked away and Van Persie would have stayed at the Emirates.
Premier League 2003-04: Arsenal vs. Portsmouth
Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ are no more
What happened? Arsenal‘s “Invincibles” of 2003-04 have been enshrined in English football history for going the entire Premier League season unbeaten — an achievement that matched the efforts of only Preston North End, who were undefeated in the very first Football League season in 1888-89. The 2003-04 campaign is also the last time Arsenal won the domestic title, but Arsene Wenger’s team may not have got past the first few weeks unbeaten had VAR been around 20 years ago.
The Gunners had enjoyed a superb start to the campaign, winning their opening four fixtures. Next up were Portsmouth, newly promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history after Harry Redknapp had led them to the First Division title.
Pompey had won both home games and drawn their two away fixtures in August before visiting Highbury, as first place in the Premier League table hosted third in north London.
Former Tottenham Hotspur forward Teddy Sheringham shocked the Gunners by giving Portsmouth the lead in the 26th minute, but Wenger’s men were given a way back into the game in the 40th minute from the penalty spot.
Arsenal winger Robert Pires burst into the box and moved past defender Dejan Stefanovic before going to ground looking for a penalty. Referee Alan Wiley pointed to the spot, and Thierry Henry stepped up to equalise. The game finished 1-1.
What could have happened? Replays clearly showed that Pires had initiated the contact, moving his leg across and into Stefanovic with no challenge made by the defender. It was a dive; a penalty bought rather than earned.
The VAR would have stepped in to tell the referee to cancel the penalty, and Pires may also have been booked for simulation.
Stefanovic says that Pires even said sorry later on. “After the game, Pires apologised to me: ‘That wasn’t my decision, it was the referee’s, what can I do?’ I accepted that,” he told “Played Up Pompey Too.”
Without that spot kick, Arsenal may not have managed to get back into the game, and a buoyant and in-form Pompey, still riding high off their title-winning season, might well have held out for the victory. The “Invincibles” may never have existed, their unbeaten season brought to an end after five matches.
Arsenal won the Premier League by 11 points that season, so perhaps the result wasn’t likely to cost them the championship. But it may have cost them the badge of honour they wear to this day.
Champions League 2008-09: Chelsea vs. Barcelona
Chelsea through to the final in place of Barca
What happened? Chelsea were eliminated in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal tie by Barcelona on away goals after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. (The first leg had finished 0-0.) But referee Tom Henning Ovrebo put in one of the most controversial officiating performances in the history of the competition. Ovrebo made a series of contentious decisions, most of them going against Chelsea, and was verbally abused by a clutch of Blues players after the final whistle. Later, he received death threats from fans on the internet, meaning he had to move hotels, be smuggled out of the U.K. and go into hiding for his own safety.
There were three key incidents that had fueled Chelsea’s ire.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea side had taken a ninth-minute lead through Michael Essien. In the 23rd minute, winger Florent Malouda moved into the area under pressure from Barca right-back Dani Alves and went to ground. Ovrebo awarded a free kick on the edge of the box, but TV replays clearly showed the holding took place inside the area — it should have been a penalty.
Chelsea should have been awarded another spot kick in the second half when the ball hit the outstretched arm of Gerard Piqué as striker Nicolas Anelka tried to help the ball past the defender.
Ovrebo didn’t give either decision, and the game moved toward injury time with Chelsea still leading 1-0 — enough to win the game on aggregate — only for Andres Iniesta to score in the third minute of stoppage time to put Barca ahead on away goals.
Even at this late stage, there was time for Chelsea to see another penalty appeal rejected by the referee when Samuel Eto’o raised his arm and blocked a shot from Ballack.
After the final whistle, Chelsea players and staff lost their heads — both on the pitch, and the bench — while supporters were incensed at the injustice. Striker Didier Drogba (who was later banned for three games for his reaction) had to be restrained from confronting the official, while defender Jose Bosingwa was suspended for two matches for his part in ugly postmatch scenes. Ballack, who had chased Ovrebo and screamed in his face to protest at the third penalty decision, somehow escaped sanction from UEFA.
What could have happened? When a holding offence takes place inside or continues into the area, then a penalty should be awarded. It seems Ovrebo took the easy option by awarded the free kick on the edge of the box. But the VAR would have stepped in to correct it; the offence against Malouda took place inside the box and it would have been a penalty kick. After Essien’s early opener, Chelsea could have been two goals up with a quarter of the game gone.
For the second penalty, it was handball. Piqué had raised his arm and created an obvious barrier that prevented Anelka from moving past him. There’s also an argument that the Barcelona player should have been sent off for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity too, as Anelka would have been past Pique and through on goal. The VAR would have stepped in to tell Ovrebo that another spot kick had been missed. And that could have been Chelsea three goals up against 10 men.
The third and final penalty call was also nailed on as Eto’o raised his arm high as he tried to close down Ballack’s shot. Even taking away the other two decisions with the score at this stage locked at 1-1, it would have given Chelsea the chance win the tie in the dying embers, with no time left for Barca to recover.
The Blues should have been playing in the final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Instead, they were eliminated.
“I was responsible for the decisions that were made and we can argue that, if I had taken others, maybe Chelsea would have qualified for the final,” Ovrebo, who retired as a referee in 2010, told Marca in 2018. “We will never know. I made decisions, and they were not the best. Some days you’re not at the level you should be. I can’t be proud of that performance.”
Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United 2-0 in the final, denying Sir Alex Ferguson back-to-back Champions League titles. The win also helped forge the folklore of Barca manager Pep Guardiola, who won the treble of Champions League, LaLiga and Copa del Rey in his first season as a coach.
No one would suggest that Guardiola wouldn’t have gone on to enjoy the same level of career success if Chelsea had been in this final instead of Barca — after all, he already had two trophies in his cabinet — but he would have had to wait to lift the Champions League for the first time as a coach.
2010 World Cup: Mexico vs. Argentina
Early VAR snapshot, Mexico end their fifth-game curse
What happened? Sometimes a decision defies belief. Argentina‘s opening goal against Mexico in the round of 16 of the 2010 World Cup was so far offside that Carlos Tevez practically had the freedom of the penalty area to roam, pounce and score.
Lionel Messi had attempted to slip Tevez through on goal, but Mexico keeper Oscar Perez made an interception. The ball fell back to Messi who once again tried to find Tevez, but he’d continued his forward movement to be in front of the entire Mexico team … and he nodded into the empty net. The goal was awarded.
If Mexico supporters in the stadium couldn’t believe their eyes, they soon had all the evidence they could have wished for. The goal was replayed on the big screens at Soccer City in Johannesburg, and everyone knew the assistant had missed that Tevez was yards offside. It was a huge error. Mexico’s players were furious, and when Italian referee Roberto Rosetti went over to discuss the goal with his assistant so were players from Argentina. Both sets of players surrounded the two officials in protest.
It seemed for a short while that Rosetti might change his decision, with all 84,000 in the stadium seeing the mistake. However, somewhat reluctantly, Rossetti gave the goal, aware that he couldn’t change the decision based on big-screen replays. After all, VAR didn’t exist.
What could have happened? The VAR would have overturned the goal, as Tevez was yards offside.
Argentina went on to win the game 3-1 and consign Mexico to their fifth consecutive round-of-16 exit at the World Cup — a run which would eventually stretch to seven tournaments in succession. But without that key first goal, which should never have been given, Mexico might have edged out Argentina to end their fifth-game curse (La maldicion del quinto Partido) once and for all. Argentina, though, were thrashed 4-0 by Germany in the next round, so Mexico may not have got much further.
Rosetti’s career may have been very different, too. He had refereed the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain and was hotly tipped to get the World Cup showpiece in 2010. But this would be the last game he would ever take charge of. Rosetti and his team were sent home and the referee announced his retirement immediately afterward.
Rosetti, however, wouldn’t be out of the game for long. He moved through the ranks and clearly learned from what he’d experienced in South Africa, as he was the VAR project leader when it was introduced at the 2018 World Cup. Today he is one of the most powerful administrators in the game as UEFA’s chief refereeing officer, effectively in control of VAR implementation for European football. Perhaps he was inspired by his early taste of VAR on the big screen in Johannesburg.
Referee Howard Webb was a big beneficiary of the error, as he would be handed the 2010 final between Spain and Netherlands, and he is now the head of referees for English football.
World Cup playoff 2009: France vs. Republic of Ireland
Ireland claim rightful place in 2010 World Cup
What happened? This decision was effectively the long-term catalyst for VAR’s arrival and one that soccer’s powerbrokers would always point to when discussing its introduction … though it took FIFA a few years to be persuaded.
France had won the first leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff against Republic of Ireland in Dublin 1-0, so knew they simply had to avoid defeat to reach the 2010 finals in South Africa.
But a shock looked possible in the second leg at the Stade de France after Robbie Keane gave Ireland a 1-0 lead, making it 1-1 on aggregate and sending the tie into extra time.
Then, in the 103rd minute, Florent Malouda’s free kick for France went through everyone in the box. As the ball was about to go out of play behind the goal, Thierry Henry used his hand to bring it under control, then crossed for William Gallas to score. Ireland couldn’t believe it. A clear handball offence had been missed by Swedish referee Martin Hansson, and it led to the end of Ireland’s World Cup dream.
Some six years later it emerged that FIFA had paid the Football Association of Ireland €5 million to not contest Henry’s handball in court.
What if VAR had caught Henry’s infamous handball vs. Ireland?
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens wonder how the 2010 World Cup would have differed if VAR prevented France from qualifying vs. Ireland.
What could have happened? Ireland’s players were right to be furious, as Henry had deliberately handled the ball, moving his arm toward it to stop it going out of play. There’s no doubt that Gallas’ goal would have been ruled out for handball through VAR.
Ireland may have managed to find a way to win — either in extra time or through a penalty shootout — which would have seen them progress to the 2010 World Cup in place of France. As a result, we could have been robbed of one of the most remarkable implosions in World Cup history.
France headed to South Africa in disarray and suffered a very public meltdown as they crashed out with two defeats (Mexico and South Africa) and one draw (Uruguay) in the group stage. The players and staff were at loggerheads already, then Nicolas Anelka was sent home after confronting coach Raymond Domenech in the dressing room with an expletive-filled rant in the aftermath of the second-game defeat at the hands of Mexico.
The rest of the squad were at odds with Domenech and the French Football Federation over Anelka’s removal. The players effectively went on strike, refusing to train in a scheduled session, with Patrice Evra involved in a row on the field with the team’s fitness coach. Domenech told a news conference that his players were “unspeakably stupid.”
The row rumbled on for several days and remains one of the most infamous incidents in World Cup history. But it may never have happened if VAR had helped Ireland claim that spot; the country could have been playing in their fourth World Cup, but they still haven’t returned to this stage.
World Cup 1966: England vs. West Germany
History’s greatest goal-line debate is solved
What happened? It’s one of the most iconic incidents in World Cup history, and a seminal moment for England as they lifted the trophy — for the one and only time — on home soil.
The 1966 World Cup final was locked at 2-2 and into the 11th minute of extra time when Alan Ball crossed for Geoff Hurst, who saw his shot hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce down.
The linesman, Tofiq Bahramov of Russia, awarded the goal after holding a brief conversation with referee Gottfried Dienst of Switzerland. As the game moved toward the end of extra time, Hurst then ran away on the break to add a fourth goal for England, completing the first hat trick in a World Cup final (only since equalled by France’s Kylian Mbappé in 2022.)
To this day, Hurst’s crucial second goal is hotly contested; West Germany insist the whole of the ball didn’t cross the line, while England’s players are adamant it did. A simulation by Sky Sports claimed the ball had gone over the line, but with the grainy footage of almost 60 years ago it’s impossible to know for sure.
What could have happened? Today, goal-line technology is able to map the precise position of the ball in relation to the goal line, so we would have a definitive answer. But even if it broke for some reason, VAR would be on hand to make the call using the camera placed along the goal line and the vastly improved frame rate on the pictures.
The whole course of history could have been very different had that goal been ruled out. England would not have that 3-2 lead, and West Germany may have been the team to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy at Wembley.
As Hurst was about to complete his hat trick on the fourth goal, some England fans had spilled out of the stands and commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered the immortal words: “They think it’s all over … it is now!” The line became so iconic, there was even a television quiz show created with the same name. But if VAR was around in 1966, Wolstenholme may never have had his moment. Perhaps there would have been no “Sir” Alf [Ramsey], “Sir” Bobby [Charlton] or “Sir” Geoff, all three knighted for their achievements in helping England to the top of the world game.
England’s World Cup success has understandably been woven into the fabric of the country ever since, and it’s hard to think of life without it.
Women’s World Cup 1999: USWNT vs. China
USWNT’s final-winning shootout save ruled out
The U.S. had won the very first World Cup in 1991 and were looking to lift the trophy for a second time. In that 1991 tournament, hosts China had been knocked out in the quarterfinals by Sweden; four years later in Norway they reached the semifinals, but lost to Germany and then fell to the USWNT in the third-placed playoff.
In 1999, the USWNT were firm favourites as tournament hosts, but China were regarded one of women’s football’s powerhouses and, after 120 goalless minutes, the World Cup winner was to be decided on penalty kicks.
Xie Huilin and Qiu Haiyan scored for China, with Carla Overbeck and Joy Fawcett replying for the United States. Liu Ying then stepped up to take China’s third spot kick, but goalkeeper Briana Scurry jumped to her left and repelled the effort, taking a huge leap off her line as she did so.
Kristine Lilly, Zhang Ouying, Mia Hamm and Sun Wen all scored, then Brandi Chastain made it a perfect five-out-of-five to hand the U.S. a 5-4 win and the trophy in front of their own fans.
After scoring the decisive penalty, Chastain removed her jersey and fell to her knees, fists pumping, to give us one of the most enduring images from the women’s game.
Why VAR in 1999 could have been a ‘history-changing moment’ for the USWNT
Herculez Gomez & Sebastian Salazar discuss Briana Scurry’s penalty save in the USWNT’s 1999 World Cup final win.
What could have happened? Liu Ying should have been given the chance to retake her kick. The law at the time stated that a goalkeeper must have both feet level with the line when the penalty is taken, but Scurry had already moved several yards forward to narrow the angle on the shot.
There’s absolutely no doubt that a retake would have been ordered with VAR. Scurry was practically at the edge of the six-yard box by the time Liu Ying had kicked the ball. It’s a law that was seldom enforced at the time, but such was the magnitude of the infraction, it’s surprising the officials didn’t order a retake even without VAR around.
Liu Ying’s retaken penalty could have made it 3-2. Instead, China were left to rue what might have been. They have not managed to get beyond the quarterfinals of a Women’s World Cup since.
The law has moved on in the modern game, with a goalkeeper now only needing one foot level with the line when the penalty is taken. Goalkeepers initially had huge issues at the 2019 Women’s World Cup under the microscope of VAR, but now it’s become its own art form. Players have learned to step forward to provide momentum, leaving the trailing leg hovering above the line. The laws change, but players adapt.