Even by the standards of the headline-hogging Video Assistant Referee (VAR) it was an extraordinary weekend at the Women’s World Cup.
What began in the shadows of the Alps on Saturday afternoon rumbled through to the north of France on Sunday, sparking anger, confusion and remarkable scenes.
First to a crowded penalty box in Grenoble. With the score 0-0 in the first half, Svenja Huth is standing a few yards from her opponent’s goalkeeper as Germany prepares to take a corner. Nigeria’s goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie gives the forward a little push, but the German still remains in the teenager’s eyeline as the ball comes flying into the box.
Eight green-shirted Nigerians are within six yards of goal. The defense should not be breached, but the ball hits the back of the net as Alexandra Popp is given the freedom to head home into the corner.
Cue the use of VAR — as has happened on numerous occasions in almost every match at the Women’s World Cup — cue minutes of delay and cue questions being asked about the ability of referees at a tournament being described as the most important in the history of the women’s game.
Eventually, referee Yoshimi Yamashita deemed Popp’s header a worthy goal, giving Germany a lead it would extend over the 90 minutes, sealing a 3-0 win over the Super Falcons to march towards the quarterfinals.
“I genuinely cannot understand what’s going on in this tournament,” said Casey Stoney, Manchester United women’s manager, who was in Grenoble working as a pundit for the BBC. Once all four weekend matches had been concluded, the former England defender was echoing the thoughts of many.
Why was there such a brouhaha about Huth positioning herself a few yards from Nigeria’s goalkeeper? Though in an offside position, she was deemed not to be interfering with play. The interpretation of that rule has not gone down well with many commentators — though it is just one ingredient in the bubbling pot that is VAR at this tournament.
“I think it’s poor refereeing,” added Stoney. “My interpretation is that’s offside.”
It was not the first time in this tournament such a goal had been allowed to stand. Last week both Australia’s Sam Kerr and the US’ Carli Lloyd were deemed not to be interfering with play when in offside positions, resulting in crucial goals being given the green light.
‘I’m questioning the ability of the officials’
Stoney was also critical of the use of VAR to decide whether Evelyn Nwabuoku’s foul on Germany’s Lina Magull was a penalty.
“The referee has to see this,” continued Stoney. “If you’re in a good position you see that’s a penalty you should not need to go to VAR for that to be given and waste even more time so I’m questioning the ability of the officials at this tournament.”
Asked whether a referee at a Women’s World Cup should be the best person for the job regardless of sex, Stoney said: “I’ve said it for years as a player, where are these referees refereeing week in, week out under pressure having to make these decisions? Then we bring them and put them on the world’s biggest stage.
“(It needs to be) the best person for the job to give the players the opportunity to play the football and let us be talking about the football, not VAR, not referees’ decisions.”
Also speaking on BBC Two, former England defender Laura Bassett said referees were using VAR as a “comfort blanket,” while after his team’s defeat, Nigeria coach Thomas Dennerby admitted the use of VAR had led to “some strange situations” during the match. But he had uttered those words before Cameroon and England took to the field on Sunday.
And, so to Sunday and to Valenciennes where England manager Phil Neville said he was “ashamed” by Cameroon’s behavior as the last-16 tie descended into farce when Cameroon’s players briefly refused to restart the game after an England goal was given by VAR. After the break, when a Cameroon goal had been disallowed by VAR, Cameroon’s players delayed the game again by protesting.
Neville later praised the referee, telling reporters when talking about an England penalty appeal which was denied that the referee was “trying to protect football” by not giving the spot kick or sending off a Cameroon player. “I admire the referee unbelievably,” the Englishman said.
But former England player Alex Scott told the BBC: “When we are talking about the development of women’s football and we’re proud of it, we now need to think about the level of the referees. This is going out worldwide but we are being let down by the officials. There are some good ones but not enough.”
‘Referees in line with expectation’
Twenty-seven female referees and 48 female assistant referees are overseeing the matches in France.
Some referees have officiated in men’s top leagues, such as Bibiana Steinhaus (Bundesliga), Stephanie Frappart (Ligue 1), Claudia Umpierrez (Uruguay), Ether Staubli (Swiss men’s second division), while assistant referee Chrysoula Kourompylia has officiated in Greece’s top men’s league.
During the weekend it was the interpretation of the offside rule which was mainly in focus, while last week it was the way penalties were being used when both Scotland and Nigeria’s goalkeepers were penalized by VAR after they were adjudged to have had stepped off their line before the ball was kicked during a penalty.
The tournament was a guinea pig to a new penalty rule introduced at the beginning of this month which begs the question: is it the officials or the way VAR and a new law has been introduced at this major tournament?
VAR was used at the 2018 men’s World Cup and is being applied in Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga but it has not been used in any women’s league in the world.
A FIFA spokesperson told CNN Sport that VAR had been used competitively in the “education phase” for referees officiating in France, such as the Alkass International Cup — an international Under-17 men’s tournament — and the Qatar Amateur League Cup.
In the four preparation seminars held before the Women’s World Cup in Abu Dhabi, Doha (twice) and Paris, practical training sessions with players and VAR simulator lessons were held on a daily basis.
“The education level convinced the FIFA Referees’ Committee to suggest in March 2019 to the FIFA Council the use of VAR at the FWWC 2019,” said the spokesperson.
‘A high level of commitment’
Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA’s Referees’ Committee, said in a press conference on Friday that the “overall assessment” of referees was “in line with our expectations.”
“The FIFA Refereeing department and in particular Kari Seitz, our project leader at France 2019, have worked very hard with the match officials during recent years,” added Collina, regarded as the finest referee of his generation.
“Twenty-four different teams of referees from all six confederations were appointed in the group phase and they showed a high level of commitment and good qualities.”
The Italian went on to say: “I am very pleased that VAR worked very well so far. Our referees started only after the FIFA World Cup 2018 to practise with this tool and they went through an intensive preparation process to be ready for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.”
In England’s Women’s Super League, the standard of refereeing was put under the microscope last season as more attention than ever was placed on what has become a fully professional top division.
As of yet, there is not a full-time group of referees in the WSL. It was only in 2016 that the English Football Association introduced an assessment system to oversee the quality of refereeing in the women’s game.
Earlier this year Umpierrez, who has refereed in Uruguay’s men’s top league, told FIFA.com that the path for female referees was tough, noting that she would not be able to “put food on the table for my family in the country where I live” if refereeing was her only profession.
“I would love to see more women refereeing men’s football,” added Umpierrez, who is also a lawyer.
Women’s football has made major progress in recent years. Standards have improved, investment has increased, and more eyes are on it than ever but for many involved in the game, the standard of refereeing has not moved quickly enough.
Such is the life of a referee, he or she will never please everyone, but they will more often than not be in the eye of any storm.