The idea, which is not an unreasonable one on its face, is to “get it right.” The less inspiring extension of that is “to avoid something horribly embarrassing.” There are examples that spring to mind when it comes to justifying VAR’s existence—the people in charge are probably thinking of moments in the vein of Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup, or Diego Maradona’s less infamous but even more flagrant handball against the Soviet Union in the 1990 World Cup. The issue, at this point in the VAR experiment, is that “right” can mean many things, some of them deeply unsatisfying and many of them less right than they appeared before being run through a series of ultra high definition video angles, back and forth, a dozen times or more. Beyond that, it’s not clear that anyone considered situations in which it’s been tacitly agreed that “right” isn’t all that important, or even preferable. Certainly no one asked for what we’ve currently got.
Two weeks ago, in what seems like a simpler time, Andi Thomas wrote a blog for SB Nation that ran under the headline “VAR doesn’t understand soccer’s unwritten rules.” That more-or-less explains the thesis, and Thomas now seems both correct and painfully prescient. Back then, the World Cup zeitgeist was more concerned with the intricacies of handballs in the box. Today it’s a slightly different brand of penalty replay drama that’s the problem.
In the 2001 UEFA Champions League Final, Bayern Munich met Valencia in Milan. There were 17 total penalty kicks taken. Three came during the run of play: one saved by Valencia’s Santiago Cañizares and two resulting in the game’s 1-1 scoreline. The other 14 took place in the penalty shootout—KFPM or “Kicks from the Penalty Mark” in IFAB jargon—that decided the championship.
The shootout went down as an especially memorable one. Bayern’s opening kicker, Paulo Sérgio, missed, and Cañizares made his second PK save of the day against Patrik Andersson. Bayern’s goalkeeper Oliver Kahn dramatically saved three kicks to seal a Bayern victory; he was named Man of the Match for his efforts.
As best as I can tell, between Cañizares and Kahn, the two keepers were illegally off the goal line on every single penalty kick taken in that game. No one appeared to notice.
The 2019 World Cup is the first major women’s tournament to make use of VAR, Video Assistant Referee. As with the other forms of instant replay video review expanding into various sports, the implementation of VAR has not always been particularly smooth or well-considered. The system was in place for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but at some point between then and the moments after Jamaica keeper Sydney Schneider saved a penalty kick by Italy’s Cristiana Girelli, someone decided that VAR was going to be used to verify the exact location of goalkeepers’ feet. New guidelines put in place before the tournament required only one foot, not two, be on or above the goal line at the time the ball was kicked. Instead of making goalkeepers’ lives easier, these rules were coupled with reviews that have done the opposite.
By the letter of the law, Schneider was absolutely off her line early. By years of precedent, though, she was well within the bounds of previously acceptable behavior and made a great save. But after review, the play was called back for goalkeeper encroachment, and Schneider was cautioned with a mandatory yellow card. The kick was retaken, and Italy scored.
This scene has played out two more times since. Wendie Renard hit the post on her first attempt against Chiamaka Nnadozie, in France vs Nigeria, and Lee Alexander saved Florencia Bonsegundo’s initial effort in Scotland vs Argentina. Both were ruled goalkeeper violations; both were re-kicked and ultimately resulted in goals. None of the reviews seemed equally interested in the possibility of other players infringing at the top of the box.
The iconic image of Brandi Chastain tearing off her shirt and falling to her knees in celebration came in the moments after she hit the final penalty kick to win the U.S. the 1999 World Cup Final over China. The victory became one of the pivotal moments in the growth of both women’s soccer, and the sport overall in the United States.
Chastain was set up for her game-winner by the previous effort of goalkeeper Briana Scurry. In the third round of kicks, Scurry dove to her left and made a spectacular save to stone Liu Ying.
On replay, Scurry bolts off her line and is yards out into the goal box before the shot is struck.
“Penalty kicks should be easier to score, and if possible also more complicated and bureaucratic,” is not a widely held opinion. It’s recognized that PKs are already an unwieldy process and weighted heavily in the shooter’s favor. At upper levels of play, attempts from the twelve-yard spot result in goals around 75-80 percent of the time. (That number is slightly lower in World Cup shootouts, possibly due to the pressure involved.)
The rules have always clearly stated that the goalkeeper can’t move off the goal line until the ball is kicked. Because strictly following that statute makes the goalkeeper’s job even harder, those rules have long been widely ignored by everyone involved. Officially, the laws have been loosened over time—since 1997 the keeper has been allowed to shuffle their feet or move laterally, and this year’s new mandate to only require one foot on the line really should be a keeper-friendly improvement. Unofficially, it’s been understood that as long as they aren’t blatant, keepers are free to bounce forward and start their diving mechanics while the shooter is in their wind up.
Working in this grey area has always come with the risk of a referee deciding to whistle the keeper for encroachment if they deem that this leniency has been stretched too far. At least until now, that happened infrequently. The keeper’s response on those occasions was often less “I’m shocked and disappointed you would accuse me of such a crime,” and more “I can’t believe you’re gonna screw me on this one, for that minuscule little hop, after we all agreed that this sort of thing was fine.”
There were 68 penalty kicks taken at the 2018 Men’s World Cup: 29 during open play, the most ever awarded in a World Cup, and 39 as part of shootouts. In all, 48 of those 68 were scored.
In an extremely unscientific belated VAR review, Deadspin looked at sketchy YouTube footage featuring as many angles as possible of the 20 penalty kicks—15 saved and 5 missed—that did not end up directly in the goal. (One of those misses, from Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz, tragically bounced off the crossbar, off the back of Swiss keeper Yann Sommer, and then into the net for an own goal.)
Using the laws on the books at the time of the tournament, which stipulated that both of the keeper’s feet must be on the line until the kick is taken, only one single penalty appears reliably legal. During Iceland vs Nigeria, keeper Francis Uzoho seems to be solidly on his line as Gylfi Sigurðsson misses. There are two more examples from shootouts that are questionable but at least close: Mateus Uribe’s miss on Jordan Pickford from Colombia vs England and Igor Akinfeev’s save against Mateo Kovačić in Croatia vs Russia. (Akinfeev’s feet are blocked by the ref in the only angle I found.)
In the other 17 examples, the keeper clearly had at least one foot illegally off the line when the shooter made impact with the ball.
Even if we retroactively apply the newer, revised rules to require only one foot on the line, a huge portion of these plays would still have been labeled violations upon further review.
After having seen the peak event in international women’s football used as a laboratory for this new application of the laws, and after having watched the chaos ensue, the men’s English Premier League has announced that they will not be using VAR to review keeper encroachment on penalties next season. The IFAB has made an emergency “temporary dispensation” announcement: during any KFPM shootouts for the remainder of the World Cup, goalkeepers will not be given a mandated yellow card if they are charged with encroachment. The fear is that, at the rate we are seeing these calls, keepers who found themselves involved in penalty shootouts would be likely to receive multiple yellows and get sent off. However, IFAB has also doubled-down on the newly stringent application of the rules, stating that it “fully supports goalkeepers being penalized for not conforming with the Laws of the Game and gaining an unfair advantage.”
I’m not convinced that this change in enforcement is the result of any real strategic plan, but getting rid of subjective, unwritten-rule loopholes would not be irrational at all. But imagine the bedlam if referees suddenly began calling every free throw lane violation in the NBA playoffs, or every potential wide receiver hold in the middle of the Super Bowl.
In the best case, maybe the ongoing VAR debacle will force a broader, long-overdue reevaluation of the entire penalty process. For the remainder of this World Cup, though, it will probably be an awkward mess. If things stand as they are, we’ll endure more arguments parsing frames of replays, keepers will eventually acclimate to playing the kicks more conservatively, and the scoring rate of penalties will rise even higher. The game will go on, and after causing havoc in a tournament that the sport’s elite already give second-class treatment, the powers that be can congratulate themselves on fixing a problem that never really existed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the MLB “neighborhood play” at second base was explicitly not reviewable. That rule was changed in 2016.