While it may have lacked some of the glitz and star power of the Superbowl, Sunday evening was nevertheless a gala evening in the world of Argentine football. River Plate had their own answer to Rihanna as they showed off their revamped Monumental home against Argentinos Juniors, packed with more than 80,000 fans, in the shape of the Millonarios' World Cup winners past and present.
The heroes of 1978, 1986 and 2022 were given a rousing ovation prior to kick-off, while even Daniel Passarella, whose glittering playing career – he is, after all, the only Argentine to boast two winners' medals, even if he did not play a minute of his second triumph – has been overshadowed in River minds by that disastrous presidency which included relegation, was greeted with respectful silence rather than hostility from the enormous crowd. But the parallels with the NFL's showpiece were not quite over. River's 2-1 victory did not extend quite as long as that event, but thanks to VAR it was another footballing marathon – and one that did not necessarily end on a high note.
As in the rest of the world, video technology was sold in Argentina as the answer to all of our refereeing prayers. The mistakes and controversies of old would be gone, observed and analysed out of existence, and if matches must go a little longer to accommodate that added diligence it is a price worth paying. The River clash certainly fulfilled the second part of that brief, stretching well over two hours thanks to repeated checks. Not even that prolonged time, moreover, proved enough to stop the familiar grumblings of discontent against the officials.
“We are absolutely furious, what they did to us was madness. We feel like we had our pockets picked,” Argentinos captain Miguel Torrén seethed after a match that saw River awarded two penalties and also escape from conceding a last-minute equaliser thanks to a razor-thin, if not to say dubious offside call, the second Bicho goal of the evening that fell victim to VAR. “The party [the Monumental re-opening] had to be complete. If not, it wouldn't have been a party for all the River fans.”
Just minutes after full-time in Núñez there was further cause for protest. Unlike major European leagues and in the World Cup, the Liga Profesional does not utilise the technology which includes a chip implanted in the ball that activates when the ball fully crosses the goal-line. So in marginal cases, such as that seen in Racing Club's thrilling 2-2 draw with Tigre, and even under review making such decisions is little more than guesswork – not that this trifling fact stopped the VAR crew from having a go.
Racing goalkeeper Gabriel Arias, the entire Cilindro crowd and almost everyone else watching were therefore dumbfounded when a header the Chile international believed he had clawed back right on the line was given as a Tigre goal, after a video review which did not seem to shed any light on the matter whatsoever. “In the image I saw, for me it didn't go in, it wasn't a goal. I don't talk about the referees, I never do,” Academia coach Fernando Gago lamented after seeing the controversy contribute to the extension to his side's winless start to the season.
Technology is here to stay in football, and it would be naïve to think otherwise. But as the weekend outcry, and a host of similar protests in the Premier League showed, the promised land of a sport without refereeing mistakes seems as much of a utopia as it ever did. Matches that last an eternity and the same old debates: the outlook seems bleak indeed unless real progress can be made both on the pitch and up in the video booth.