In what both promised and proved to be one of the glamour friendlies of the international period, 2016 European Championship hosts France, took on 2008 and 2012 winners Spain, and it was the latter who would return to their club sides ahead of this weekend’s fixtures in a far more optimistic mood about the future. But there was much more to this tie than just a 90 minute game of football.
Lesson Number One: There are more trophies on offer for this incredible Spanish side
This rather iconic friendly may go down in memory for reasons relating to two key interventions by the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system (see below), but football supporters, pundits, and coaches alike would be mistaken, should they fail acknowledge the excellence that was on display from a dominant Spain side.
The winners of three straight major international tournaments (EURO 2008, World Cup 2010, and EURO 2012) we should not forget, this ‘ageing’ Spanish side rolled back the years as they outplayed a French team boasting some of the brightest young talent in world football.
Through the likes of 18-year old starlet Kylian Mbappe – who was making his first start for his country – and the more established Arsenal central defender Laurent Koscielny, it was the hosts who carved out two of the game’s best early chances.
However, Julen Lopetegui’s Spain soon grew into the match from then on, and it was they who were in control throughout the remainder of the tie, with the one exception being when Antoine Griezmann thought he had nodded France ahead, only for the video assistant to inform man in the middle Felix Zwyer that left back Layvin Kurzawa was actually offside as the cross came in.
That ‘goal’ was scored within three minutes of the restart, but, in all truth, it was not long before Lopetegui’s men were performing in a manner that was reminiscent of ‘La Furia Roja’ from those years of glory that shook the world from ’08 to 2012.
And Spanish dominance finally told in the 68th minute, as substitute Gerard Deulofeu – currently playing his football with Italian giants Milan – picked up a wayward pass from Tiemoue Bakayoko before he was clattered by Koscielny in the box. Up stepped Manchester City’s David Silva and the penalty was cleanly dispatched for 1-0, sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way in the process.
Any hope France had at getting themselves back in the game was over less than ten minutes later, as the Milan winger raced onto the end of a Jordi Alba cross to double the away side’s advantage. Initially disallowed, the VAR quickly consulted Zwyer to inform him that the official on the far side had made the wrong call, and the goal rightly stood.
Lesson Number Two: We should expect to see video referees in football in the near future
Whether you are a traditionalist who wants football to remain ‘how it has always been’, or would prefer to see robots on the pitch than ‘the modern day professional’, Spain’s victory over France on Tuesday night made it almost certain that VARs will soon be commonplace in (professional) football.
As outlined above, the VAR crucially intervened on two occasions during the 1 ½ hours of football staged at the Stade de France, and, quite frankly, turned two wrong decisions into right ones, both at key points in the match.
The major argument in favour of using such technologies is of course that big decisions change games. Anyone who can vaguely call themselves an England fan will be able to quite vividly recall Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ that remarkably never was against Germany at the 2010 World Cup. Goal-line technology has stopped such calamitous decisions occurring in that aspect of the game, and VARs would go some way to stopping the like in many others.
Further arguments in favour of such technologies include the success of its introduction in sports such as rugby, cricket, and tennis, in which basic systems have been adopted to make the outcomes of such events simply more just. It would be wrong to overlook the drawbacks to video technology and its introduction into football, and none more so than decisions remaining largely if not wholly subjective (i.e. a replay will not objectively inform those who need to know whether or not a penalty should be a penalty).
However, video technology will, at least overtime, take attentions away from poor decisions and refereeing mishaps, and back towards where it should be. That focus is on the quality of entertainment that is so often on display at football stadiums across the world, as was so clearly the case in Saint-Denis earlier in the week.
It is worth making this bold prediction now: should FIFA President Gianni Infantino get his way and VARs be used at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, then their success will be evidenced on the global stage, and we will subsequently see their use in frequent supply from the first afternoon of the 2018/19 Premier League season. That is the way that football, and sport more generally, is heading.
So from the two lessons learned, we both looked back to the past and also well into the future, with a heavily criticised Spanish side proving their worth as real contenders ahead of next year’s World Cup in Russia. Yet while this glamour tie brought plenty of on-pitch entertainment for those in attendance and watching around the world, it was the actions of those off it that will live long in the memory, with the widespread introduction of video technology appearing to be much closer than many might choose to believe.