While the football world is divided with numerous debates about the role of the Virtual Assistant Referee, it isn’t easy to imagine a game without it.
It would press the defence into great trouble if, say, another ‘hand of god’ were to be pulled off without the VAR system around.
Well, that is exactly what happened (almost) when Marseille clashed with Azerbaijan league leaders FK Qarabag in the second leg of their last-16 Europa Conference League tie.
Just past the half-hour mark, the crowd in Baku erupted as Qarabag’s Ibrahima Wadji competed with the Marseille goalkeeper Steven Mandanda for a cross and successfully turned it in.
Replays soon revealed that the 34-year old had, in fact, punched the ball with his hands to net the equalizer.
Marseille players quickly swarmed around the referee Bartosz Frankowski, who had missed the handball and allowed the goal to stand.
While the obvious choice in such situations would be to turn to VAR, the Polish referee wasn’t able to do that as well because unlike the Champions League and the Europa League, the new continental tournament does not utilize the VAR system until the competition’s final game.
While the referee tried to restore order in the game by showing yellow cards to the Marseille players, Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov called Wadji and team captain Maksim Medvedev to the touchline.
Wadji, who had maintained silence despite being called a ‘cheat’ by the Marseille players, owned up to the referee after being directed to do so by Gurbanov.
The referee immediately chalked off the goal and awarded a free-kick to Marseille.
“I knew that the ball had touched my hand. But it was not an action that I wanted to do. My hand accompanied my head”, Wadji told reporters after the match.
“We spoke with the coach. The coach asked me what I thought; I told him that I touched the ball with my hand. He said to me, ‘it’s not good, you have to take responsibility, you have to discuss with the referee”, the Senegalese striker further added.
Praises poured in for Gurbanov and Wadji as people lauded their sportsmanship during such a controversial incident.
Even Marseille’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, admired the former Azerbaijani international while confessing that he might’ve made a different call had he been in Gurbanov’s place.
Following up with two more goals later in the second half, Marseille knocked Qarabag in 6-1 aggregate to now move into the quarterfinals of the Europa Conference League.