The controversy surrounding the use of VAR at the Women’s World Cup took a new turn on Monday, as two decisions helped give France a 1-0 win over Nigeria, ensuring the European nation finished atop Group A.
For those who haven’t seen it, referee Melissa Borjas went to the video monitor to take a second look twice during the match. First, when Ngozi Ebere fouled Viviane Asseyi in the penalty box, leading to a penalty kick, and the second time when Nigeria’s 18-year-old goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie hopped off her line by a foot, VAR alerted Borjas to award a retake.
PST writers Dan Karell and Kyle Bonn both have opinions, and we figured this was a good forum to get their ideas off their mind.
In my opinion, VAR did its job correctly. The problem wasn’t with VAR, or even the rules. It was with the referee, and how she interpreted those rules.
The original intent for VAR was to be used to fix clear and obvious mistakes missed by the referees, especially the center referee. This includes many examples, such as an obvious hand-ball in the box, the ball crossing the goalline, violent conduct away from the ball, or cases of mistaken identity with cards to players.
I don’t believe that either situation, the original penalty kick and the retake, were “clear and obvious” mistakes that were missed by the ref. Yes, was Asseyi probably fouled in the box by Eberi? Probably. But Asseyi also got to the ball first and could have taken a first-time strike. While that may have been a foul if it had happened at midfield, and therefore was in theory correctly called, you’ve got the referee and at least one assistant looking right at the play. If the referee decides to play on, then play on.
For the second, it was even more egregious. The new rules from the International Football Association Board states that goalkeepers now only need to have one foot on the line on penalty kicks, as most goalkeepers like to creep up and step off the line to shorten the distance to making a save. Of course, in the men’s game, this rule came to pass because almost no goalkeepers kept both feet on the line like they were supposed to. Like speed limit laws, it’s a law on paper but it’s almost never enforced unless there’s an serious issue, like someone driving 20 or more miles per hour over the speed limit. Most referees let them get away with it.
In this case, the referee, and two assistants, should have seen Nnadozie encroaching off her line. They also should have seen the France players encroaching into the box before Wendie Renard took the PK, as former U.S. Men’s National Team striker Herculez Gomez pointed out.
It even happened on the retake! Yet only Nnadozie was punished. Again, while Nnadozie was at fault, it shouldn’t have been a “clear and obvious” mistake by the referee. Nnadozie didn’t make contact with the ball as Renard’s first strike caromed off the post, and if Nnadozie somehow got into the head of Renard by stepping one foot off the line, then honestly, that’s on Renard.
In my opinion, while VAR was used correctly, it wasn’t in the spirit of the rule, why the system was put in in the first place. Both situations could have been judged by the referee in the middle. and if referees are now delaying all judgement to the VAR, they lose all authority from players for regular foul calls, throw-ins, or any basic decision.
Here’s the thing about VAR: when used correctly – which it has been on plenty of occasions – it has made the game better 100% of the time. It was never going to be perfect the first time around, as no sport has implemented a replay system with pinpoint accuracy in its first go. The replay system in soccer works and works well, now it’s time for the sport to adjust to the issues which have been presented.
There have been three issues most frequently coming to light, two of which were predictable. The problems many people could see coming were the abrupt and awkward stoppages of play leading to long periods of waiting, and the unclear definition of “clear and obvious error” leading to occasional poor application of the system. Those two issues deserve their own column and can be addressed by analyzing early usage of the system and tweaking its logistical flow to streamline the process.
Thirdly, the system has brought to light certain rules that to the naked eye were never a problem as referees had discretion on how and when to issue punishment, but under replay scrutiny, everything must now be black and white. Do not blame the replay system for this deficiency – the rules were always the problem, the game just didn’t care to make the adjustments, leaving the referees to do that on the field instead. Now, with the rules out of the referees hands, the rules must change.
Obviously the handball rule needs serious correction, and that could take years to parse out. One rule that could be effortlessly edited to fit the new VAR universe is the goalkeeper’s positioning when defending a penalty, one that has become a clear hole in the rule book, no more evident than in the U-20 World Cup and now the Women’s World Cup. New Zealand was booted from the U-20 tournament in a penalty shootout that saw one of their saves ruled a retake after Michael Woud was judged harshly for coming off his line. Now, as Daniel eloquently outlined earlier, the Women’s World Cup suffers.
The laws of the game admitted fault, editing the rule slightly to allow goalkeepers to have one foot on the line rather than two, but this change has done little to fix the problem. Hopefully, a subsequent change will come soon to allow goalkeepers the ability to move in a natural manner while not gaining an advantage on the effort.
Do not blame VAR for the issues built into the game of soccer that human referees were in the past able to mask with common sense no longer afforded to them in a replay world. With the ability to scrutinize millimeters of play using video replay, it’s impossible for a referee to allow minor infractions for the betterment of the game. The game itself must adjust, and should that happen, VAR will be a fabulous addition to the game, but until then, fans, players, and coaches will be forced to swallow more cruel moments like we’ve seen of late, and the growing pains will continue to be noticeable.