African football has suddenly become soft. This year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has produced relatively higher controversial moments from a historical point of view that have ultimately cost several teams their places in the tournament.
No fewer than 13 red cards have so so far been brandished and 19 penalties awarded; each affecting the overall outcome of the respective matches – from the two penalties handed to Cameroon in the first match, albeit as a result of the overruling by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), to the two red cards issued to send off two Cape Verdeans in the round of 16 knockout clash against Senegal. This is not forgetting the incident that led to the VAR review and subsequent sending off of Nigeria’s Alexander Iwobi.
As is with all controversies, this trend of adverse refereeing decisions has caused tongues to wag all over the world. Michael Essien, a Ghanaian football legend, asked a question as to whether the tournament was becoming soft. He was referring to the spate of red cards issued on almost all match days. Is this true though? Is VAR robbing the AFCON of its essence?
All the arguments against the deployment of VAR reared in this tournament. From the subjective decisions to overturn initial on-field referees’ decisions of yellow cards to red cards to the delays associated with coming up with a decision, this year’s AFCON tournament has it all.
The ethos of the AFCON, which has been its distinguishing feature from other continental tournaments, is heavy metal, aggressive-tackling, humidity-inducing battles between underdogs and heavy-weights. Superstars are usually outshined by relatively unknown footballers. The winner is usually decided not only by the team’s individual abilities, but by their sheer passion and dedication to win.
So why are African referees not hard with their decisions, just like they were in previous tournaments? In all honesty, replays make all tackles slightly more aggressive than they seem in real life and the overzealousness of the video assistant referees to recall the on-field referee for additional review would almost always certainly lead to a change in the initial call. Moreover, the number of cameras that cover the field of play in AFCON are obviously less than what is obtained in top leagues in the world. What this implies is that each incidence under review might not pass through as much thorough an inquest as that of a typical European league. The camera elevations are simply not enough to pass a fool-proof verdict. The Confederation of African Footbal (CAF) needs to do more in subsequent tournaments.
VAR in itself is not a problem, however. The humans that make use of the technology are. Its controversies are seen on a weekly basis in several top leagues in the world. What remains certain is that the rules for VAR review should reflect the character of the league or tournament in question, and not to be used as a one-size-fits-all technology. In the recently concluded European cup for instance, VAR decisions were swift and minimal. No significant delays were experienced even as overruling of referee decisions were based on a clear and obvious error from the on-field referee.
The refereeing decisions have no doubt affected the overall climate of the tournament. Some teams, notably the Comoros national, team have left the tournament with their heads held high. It is possible to have more than one champion in a tournament, and some teams have already created memorable moments that can be likened to legendary moments. These moments are the quintessence of the AFCON.
Aliyu Sulaiman can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org