Video assistant referees and racism: Changing attitudes and laws in football

Fans from around the globe will descend upon Russia for the World Cup this summer, creating an eclectic festival of football. German-born Nigerian international Leon Balogun perhaps personifies that blend of footballing cultures.

The defender plays his club football with Bundesliga side FSV Mainz 05, but will be appearing at Russia 2018 in the stylish green of ‘Super Eagles’ Nigeria, the country of his father’s heritage, which he chose over the current world champions.

Balogun, 29, will be taking on Lionel Messi’s Argentina at the tournament, the third time in a row that the two sides will have met at the group stage of a World Cup finals, and the fifth time in the past seven competitions.

“I think football is an international language. Of course we still see racism in football, but if I would think about racism before I think about playing the game and enjoying the World Cup then something would be wrong, I guess,” said the footballer.

Balogun is outspoken on topics such as the now-infamous H&M advert that featured a young black boy in a hoodie with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The player believes his platform allows him to tackle such ignorance.

“It’s 2018. We see what’s going on in the USA, but also all around the world - Blaise Matuidi was just insulted two or three days [ago] again. It’s happening every day. I think it’s our responsibility. I don’t even blame anyone or claim anyone at H&M is racist, but this should not be happening because they also have a responsibility because they have a big range,” he said.

“It’s just that we need to keep reminding people how the African community or the black community feels. As long as black people get compared with monkeys, just for the [purpose] of taking their self-esteem, then this will never be all right,” he said.

Argentina playing Balogun’s Nigeria may not be anything new at a World Cup finals, but one potentially novel feature at Russia 2018 is the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). The International Football Association Board (IFAB), consisting of the four British football associations and FIFA, are currently debating with world football’s governing body about the possibility of implementing VAR in time for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

IFAB officials claim the results of examinations ahead of FIFA’s proposed deadline for a decision on the endorsement of VAR by March 3 are “very positive.”

“This philosophy is very tricky because people don’t get it yet. But with time and with the different incidents and when you have the referees or the responsible people in the local football environment explaining why and how and whatever, over time this acceptance goes up,” said IFAB Secretary Lukas Brud from the board’s headquarters in Zurich.

READ MORE: FIFA to rule next month on VAR endorsement at Russia 2018

“FIFA is a very important stakeholder, they have four of the possible eight votes in a major decision taken by IFAB. We are independent but we are also part of that same families. So we work together to make sure that everyone agrees to whatever IFAB decides because it affects football worldwide and FIFA’s job is to enforce the laws of the game which are then created by IFAB.”

VAR made its debut at a major football tournament at the 2017 confederations Cup in Russia last summer, where it endured its fair share of criticism, many of its detractors claim VAR slows down play and question whether the decisions it supports are watertight.

Nevertheless, the technology, which aids referees in making decisions on mistaken identity, penalty claims, red cards and offside rulings, has also been trialed in Germany's Bundesliga and Italy's Serie A, and is expected to be used at Russia 2018. 

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