Women's World Cup shows VAR still has room for improvement

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LE HARVE, France — Players stopped in their tracks across the pitch, quizzically looking around for an answer.

Just before halftime of Sunday’s England-Cameroon round of 16 match at the Women’s World Cup, a sequence was called to be reviewed by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

England forward Ellen White was originally called offside, but after referee Qin Liang consulted with VAR, which showed White was onside, she awarded the goal.

White jumped in celebration and was engulfed by her teammates, while manager Phil Neville punched his arms into the air. Having seen an image momentarily flash up on the screen of the incident, Cameroon’s players protested by forming a circle in the middle of the pitch while England looked on.

And this was just Sunday, but players, coaches, fans and pundits alike have seen VAR calls (or non-calls) alter this entire tournament.

FIFA introduced VAR, soccer’s version of an instant replay system, back in 2017 to correct any clear and obvious mistakes made by the on-field officials and missed incidents with a focus on minimum interference. It was intended to be used in four instances: goals, red cards, penalties and “mistaken identity,” when the referee may book the wrong player. It was meant to put the emphasis back on everything that has been wonderful about the Women’s World Cup — the brilliant football, goals and the fantastic saves.

Instead, VAR has become too intertwined in this tournament’s DNA, where calls are all too frequently becoming subplots to matches, often hard to define and delay matches to the point of frustration.

The England-Cameroon debate met all of these unfortunate criteria, but there are a few more examples worth examining.

Under the “delayed matches” category, we turn to Monday’s United States-Spain match. Referee Katalin Kulcsar awarded the Americans a penalty for a trip against Rose Lavelle, but VAR intervened when it should have only been used in a case where there had been a clear and obvious error by the referee. Kulcsar instead went to the touchline to watch the replay, but stuck to her original call. The Spain players were incredulous, their supporters furious. Six minutes — six minutes — were wasted, and there was still a divided interpretation over whether it was a penalty.

Another area where VAR has invoked the most raised eyebrows and bemusement is when it has interceded in a subjective decision — fouls in the penalty area or judging passive/active players — and it is the referee’s deciding call.

Where the outcome needs a subjective decision by the referee, the official will hear feedback from VAR but may need to make a further call on having viewed the footage in the referee review area (RRA).

Case in point: Sam Kerr being in an offside position during Australia’s 3-2 group-stage win against Brazil, where she did not touch the ball as Brazil headed into their own box. Here, the referee was determining whether Kerr was passive, or active in the passage of play that led to Monica’s own goal. There have been three other examples of this: the United States’ second goal against Sweden through an own goal from Jonna Andersson with the official checking on Carli Lloyd’s role; Germany’s goal from Alexandra Popp against Nigeria with Svenja Huth’s position being checked; and in the France-Brazil Round of 16 match where Thaisa’s goal was originally called offside and then overturned and awarded after Cristiane was deemed as passive.

“There was one time in the first half when no one [knew] what they were watching for, players looking at each other, coaches looking at each other,” said Nigeria coach Thomas Dennerby regarding Popp’s goal. “Goal-line technology is good for the game, but I don’t think anyone has the final solution for VAR yet.”

Adding to the overall confusion was FIFA implementing the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) new rule just six days before the start of the tournament (they announced the rule change back in March, but it was cemented on June 1), allowing VAR to be used to determine whether a goalkeeper has kept at least one foot on the line when a penalty kick is being taken.

Without a categorical, cast-iron example snapshot of subjective decisions for why the referee has either overturned or reinforced his or her decision, there remains a grey area of individual interpretation — especially with the offside rule as complicated as it is now in the sport as a whole.

This painfully obvious disconnect between intention and interpretation, correct and incorrect decisions, has led some critics to ask aloud whether we’re better off relying on referee infallibility.

FIFA did seek to educate World Cup teams on VAR and when it would be used. All 24 teams were briefed by FIFA referees’ boss, Pierluigi Collina, at the World Cup draw back in December. A FIFA spokesperson told ESPN that each nation was offered the chance to play a match with VAR present prior to this World Cup — FIFA said it does not have statistics to accurately account for how many teams accepted the offer.

Each team was also sent an educational FIFA VAR video prior to the tournament and visited by a FIFA official upon arrival in France to talk through the rules. But still, prior to the World Cup, none of the players had competed under VAR until the tournament opened on June 7. The majority of the referees had never used it, and FIFA didn’t even approve VAR for the Women’s World Cup until mid-March despite it saying the review system was “close to perfection” at the men’s World Cup last year. With 99.3% of “match-changing” decisions being called correctly in Russia, USWNT coach Jill Ellis was a supporter of implementing the review system into the Women’s World Cup.

“I can’t see them not having it,” Ellis told reporters last year in Russia. “It would be a little insulting if we’re not afforded the same opportunity. There is too much at stake to not have it. Our game, our passion, our drive, our motivation is at the same level as the men.”

Next season, the Premier League will show a freeze-frame or highlight of any overturned decisions on stadiums’ big screens. (For those stadiums like Anfield and Old Trafford, which do not have screens, they’ll use the tannoy or scoreboard.) But FIFA opted against using that here at the Women’s World Cup. It has previously been alluded that FIFA’s decision to do this was in response to fears of sparking crowd unrest — a position sign-posted by former Italian referee Roberto Rosetti, who set up FIFA’s VAR program, when explaining how UEFA was using it in this season’s Champions League in February.

The Premier League will encourage referees to listen to any VAR interpretation and then give the balance of probability to the VAR’s call, rather than seeking another view at their own discretion, in a bid to keep the game moving. Meanwhile, in France, FIFA is recommending referees take as long as needed to determine a correct outcome, rather than rush to a wrong outcome. What follows is the finger to the ear and then, on occasion, the delay, the jog to the touchline, the focus on the referee watching the monitor and then a decision. Having witnessed these World Cup games in action, it only adds to the pantomime.

VAR has had its positives — offside goals are correctly being chalked off. But there are still too many gray areas. And as controversial as the Cameroon-England Round of 16 match was, the two decisions which went to VAR — White’s goal and Ajara Nchout’s chalked-off effort — were both correctly overturned. Margins are irrelevant: Under the laws, as draconian as they are, there are no gray areas with offside. You’re either onside or you’re not.

While broadcasters are given the benefit of seeing what the referee/VAR is watching, it needs to be shown in the stadium, or at least the definitive image or clip needs to be aired. Get the action out there for everyone to see, zoom in like Hawk-Eye at Wimbledon and get on with it. Perhaps it even needs the Voice of God booming from the PA to explain the call in definitive terms. And decisions must be made far quicker. The England-Cameroon game had a collective 15 minutes added-on time, and for all VAR is doing in making the game more error-free, it should not come at the expense of prolonging matches far longer than before.

With VAR in play, the postmatch narratives should be about what has just happened on the field — the brilliance of the players, the goals and ramifications.

Remember Marta’s inspirational message after Brazil were knocked out by France on Sunday? That should have dominated the headlines, not been moved to the back burner because of controversial and contrasting interpretations of VAR.

That alone tells us there is still work to be done.

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