Don’t blame VAR for Women’s World Cup penalty controversies – it’s the new rules that are the problem
Remember all the arguments we had about VAR? It would slow the game down. Baffle live spectators. Rip the elite game even further from the grassroots.
Those were the days, eh? Then came last year’s World Cup. No one was deterred from debating referee decisions (a past time that apparently ranks above watching actual football for many), and the video refs were largely seen as a success. VAR even managed to be used on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup final, while winning over sceptics.
By the time it came to giving a first minute penalty in the Champions League final, VAR’s use was unremarkable – especially in comparison to a year-long running media outrage over application of the handball laws.
Use of VAR at the Women’s World Cup, however, has reignited its existence as a topic of debate. Many of the 'controversial' refereeing decisions from the past fortnight have led to suggestions that VAR itself is the problem, rather than the decisions being made.
This, though, misses the point.
So far, the controversies have come in two forms.
The first has been soft penalties. Most have been about handballs – which, given the number of Champions League controversies this season, hardly seems to be unique to the Women’s World Cup. Others have been about dangerous challenges; France’s penalty against Norway in particular.
But all of those penalty decisions have been correct, and probably would have been given in the men’s game regardless. Nothing here stands out as unique to this tournament.
The second round of controversy is a bit different, and has been over the instances of penalty retakes. In the game between Italy and Jamaica, Cristiana Girelli saw her penalty saved by Sydney Schneider – but slotted home on the retake after Schneider was judged to have come off her line.
Monday’s match between France and Nigeria was even more controversial: Wendie Renard’s first attempt went wide, but scored with a second opportunity, following a video replay showing Chiamaka Nnadozie marginally in front of the goal line.
And now, worst of all, Scotland have been sent home after the same thing happened in the dying moments against Argentina.
All the goalkeepers received yellow cards for their troubles – namely, stepping slightly off the line.
This, many have argued, is the fault of VAR. Overzealousness from referees has led them to rely on video assistance for every marginal call, and the level of pedantry replays can provide is killing the game.
Don’t blame VAR, blame the rules.
In March, IFAB, the referees’ association, published a new tranche of rules to be introduced on 1 June, and which are already in use at this World Cup.
Most people watching Women’s World Cup games have already regularly spotted one: defenders receiving the ball from a goal kick within the penalty area. This – a reaction to the now common build-from-the-back, high-press style – will be seen every week in domestic men’s football from August.
Another, on handball (yawn), has been a favoured topic of discussion among live commentators.
But these decisions have been about the new rules on penalties. Essentially, they read like an exaggeration of the previous ones that dictated a goalkeeper can’t come off their line. Now, keepers must keep one foot on (or in line with) the goal line, they “must not be moving”, touching the crossbar, or stood behind the line.
This all works in the penalty taker’s favour, and points us to the real problem here. It’s not the application of the rules, nor the presence of video replays with which to interpret them, but the rules themselves that are the real issue.
Referees are being told to look out for goalkeepers breaking these rules. It wasn’t VAR that asked them to do that.
With the introduction of VAR into the Premier League next season, keepers should take note.
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