Liam Morgan

A collective sigh of disappointment was audible across the footballing world yesterday as fans woke up to a troubling realisation.

They knew it was coming, but it did not make it easier to take.

After two weeks of magical madness - superb goals, drama and plenty of video assistant referees (VAR) controversy -it was the first day since June 13 where there was no football.

The conclusion of the group stages at the FIFA World Cup in Russia brought June 29, the dreaded yet unavoidable "rest day". These are unwelcome words when you are caught up in the usual football fever which accompanies the planet's biggest sporting event.

It is little wonder why some might have been a tad dispirited; after all, we were treated to a feast over the past 14 days in a group stage which had everything.

Perhaps inevitably, VAR has been one of the main talking points. FIFA's decision to use their flagship quadrennial showpiece as a trial for the technology meant that was always likely to be the case.

In fairness, it has been largely successful but the first real test of VAR has also featured more than a dash of controversy.

VAR has been a constant theme throughout the tournament ©Getty Images
VAR has been a constant theme throughout the tournament ©Getty Images

The quite frankly ridiculous, frenzied end to Group B is a case in point as the technology almost completely changed the fortunes of Spain and Portugal in 120 frenetic seconds in the dying stages of their respective matches against Morocco and Iran.

Portugal were heading for top spot until VAR helped Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov reverse an offside call - correctly as it turned out - in Spain's clash with Morocco, giving the 2010 winners a late equaliser through Iago Aspas.

Almost at the same time, Paraguay official Enrique Caceres was urged to give Iran a penalty for handball by Portugal's Cedric Soares and subsequently did so, allowing Karim Ansarifard to score a goal which condemned the European champions to second place.

The ramifications for Portugal? A meeting with a tough opponent in Uruguay in the last 16, while Spain play Russia - the tournament's lowest-ranked team.

All this from technology which FIFA insisted would only provide "minimal interference" on the game.

Teething problems are to be expected in a trial of any kind but some of the mistakes were unfathomable. In England's opener with Tunisia, striker Harry Kane was clearly wrestled to the ground on two occasions, but VAR failed to intervene.

A similar fate befell Serbian striker Aleksandr Mitrovic, who was grappled and hauled to the floor in the box during his side's clash with Switzerland. Despite the availability of VAR, neither the referee nor those in the Moscow control room spotted it.

The decision would also have drastic consequences as Xherdan Shaqiri scored a last-gasp winner to send Switzerland to the brink of the next round while leaving Serbia on the verge of an early exit.

Portugal's Cedric Soares, left, was among the players who were the victim of bad VAR decisions during the group stage ©Getty Images
Portugal's Cedric Soares, left, was among the players who were the victim of bad VAR decisions during the group stage ©Getty Images

Another problem, which is not entirely VAR's fault, is that some of the in-game calls made by referees are subjective and are not black-and-white, sparking more confusion and debate as to whether the right decision was reached.

VAR has also shown that the current handball rule is not fit for purpose and warrants a re-think from FIFA and the International Football Associations Board, the sport's lawmakers.

The incident involving Soares in the Portugal-Iran encounter shows why. For an offence to be committed, the handball has to be "deliberate" and there is simply no way the Portuguese defender intended to handle the ball.

In fact, how often do you see genuine, deliberate handballs? As rarely as an admission of wrongdoing from the World Cup host nation whenever claims of state-sponsored doping are put to senior officials.

A possible solution would be to make all handballs in the box, deliberate or not, a foul. This works in hockey, where a penalty corner is awarded when the ball touches a player's feet - even if it has been smashed at them from close range.

That way you remove the subjectivity from the equation, although it could come to a stage where players are aiming for an opponent's arm in the knowledge that they will be given a spot-kick.

While there have been clear issues, VAR has, in some cases, eradicated the "clear and obvious" errors it is supposed to.

Aspas' aforementioned leveller would have been ruled out had it not been for VAR, while a penalty decision in Thursday's (June 28) crucial Group H match between Senegal and Colombia was also correctly overturned because of the intervention of those sitting in that now infamous room in the Russian capital.

Brazilian forward Neymar, who has shown glimpses but has so far failed to live up to his pre-tournament billing, was also involved in a positive demonstration of VAR as he was initially awarded a penalty before the decision was reversed after TV footage showed minimal contact between the PSG striker and a Costa Rican defender.

Iago Aspas was the beneficiary of a VAR decision which saw Spain finish top of the group ©Getty Images
Iago Aspas was the beneficiary of a VAR decision which saw Spain finish top of the group ©Getty Images

There have been pros and cons of VAR so far but an even greater test of the system will come in the knockout rounds, where the stakes are much higher and where it could have a much more significant impact on the tournament.

And what a World Cup it has been so far. As well as the VAR controversy - which has added another layer of intrigue to certain matches - we have seen fabulous goals, gripping tension and drama practically every day.

Following the absurd ending to Group B, Argentina scraped through to the last 16 by virtue of an 86th minute winner from an unlikely source in defender Marcos Rojo, prompting scenes of jubilation in Saint Petersburg and 13,000 kilometres away in Buenos Aires.

The following day, Germany waved Auf Wiedersehen to the defence of their World Cup title and the tournament itself when they suffered an embarrassing early exit following a shock defeat to South Korea.

It is not only action on the pitch which has impressed. Judging by those lucky enough to be in Russia, the tournament has been expertly-organised and delivered. No wonder FIFA President Gianni Infantino is smiling every time the camera pans to him in the stadium.

Russia has come in for deserved criticism in recent years for their systematic manipulation of the anti-doping process at major events, including their home Winter Olympics in Sochi four years ago, but their efforts in staging the World Cup merit praise.

England's match with Belgium was an example of why a draw should take place for the knockout stage ©Getty Images
England's match with Belgium was an example of why a draw should take place for the knockout stage ©Getty Images

Russia 2018 has also posed questions for FIFA on future World Cups. The match between England and Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday (June 28) showed it is time the current system whereby knockout round opponents are pre-determined depending on which group teams are drawn in is changed in favour of holding a draw involving the eight winners and eight runners-up.

Neither team wanted to win, knowing that a second-place finish would mean a more favourable route to the final in Moscow on July 15, which provided a strange contest not befitting of football's grandest stage. 

Opponents to such an idea point out how a draw would be unfair on a team in Group H, for example, who may be asked to play someone in Group A in the first knockout match despite having significantly less rest in between matches. 

But this could be avoided by simply extending the tournament to include more rest days - no matter how unpopular they might be.