England lived up to their FIFA ranking as the third-best women’s team in the world for maybe 30 minutes in their match against Cameroon on Sunday. Had it not been for Cameroonian players allowing the poor implementation of VAR that has become a staple of this tournament to get to them, Cameroon would have likely put up a better fight as far as the final score is concerned.
But more on that later as England’s first goal of the day wasn’t entirely decided by VAR, it was more that the obvious error from Cameroon’s keeper was confirmed by it so that the referee could correctly award the indirect free kick.
From there, things began to spiral fast for both teams and at different levels. Cameroon’s spiral was unfortunately the more notable one. While allowing the first goal so early might have ruffled a few feathers, there wasn’t anything to indicate a growing resentment towards any officiating. That all came during Ellen White’s goal in injury time of the first half. After the offside flag went up to disallow the goal, the referee went to VAR and determined that White was, in fact, onside, giving England a 2-0 lead. To say the Cameroonian players were upset would be an understatement. The confusion that resulted from the call stalled the game for a few minutes and the wait went even longer when Cameroon had a team huddle after the call was made.
That frustration still couldn’t stop Cameroon from getting their chances in and showing England where their defense needs improving. In the 48th minute, it certainly looked like they had a chance to pull one back when Ajara Nchout got one past the English keeper. But another VAR review of the goal revealed that the Cameroonian player who made the pass to Nchout was about an inch offside, so the goal was disallowed. Cameroon’s already shaky composure was gone at this point in the game as the frustrations from two VAR decisions not going their way boiled over. It almost looked like they were ready to walk off the field as they gathered around their technical area to express their emotions.
Eventually the players were able to calm things down and get back into the action. Cameroon even had another chance at goal, but that shot went straight at England’s keeper for an easy save. But not 10 minutes had passed since their opening goal had been disallowed that Cameroon suddenly found themselves in a three-goal deficit when they allowed England to score from poorly defended corner.
The match proceeded as many expected it to after that third goal. Cameroon still go their chances in, but England took control of the match and were able to hold onto their three-goal lead until the final whistle. But before even the final whistle could come on, another VAR moment erupted in the seventh minute of extra time when a Cameroonian player was being reviewed for a potential red card after stamping on the foot of one of the English—the final decision was to hand the Cameroonian player a yellow card.
With all of what happened with Cameroon, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice just how poorly England approached this game and the spiral that started quickly for their on-field performance. The defense regularly looked shaky, and there’d often be too many midfielders forward to provide any support to the backline. This combination allowed for Cameroon to do a pretty solid carving up the Lionesses. Had they been more clinical in their attempts in front of goal, VAR not stepped in on one of their near-goals, and emotions been kept a little bit more under control for the whole match, then things could have gone very, very differently this match.
On the one hand you can almost understand that a national team which barely snuck into the knockout stage would find things particularly frustrating when, despite their best efforts, a new system which has been applied so inconsistently ends up getting used in some of the most pivotal moments of the match and appearing to only favor one side—especially when, let’s face it, the road to this moment has been considerably more difficult than England’s. Plus, it’s a tall ask to have players respect the authority of a referee who had no desire to wield any, opting instead to take a backseat to VAR. On the other, one can only imagine what Cameroon could have done had they not lost focus against an English team that will likely crumble in the next round against a superior opponent. There’s an alternate universe out there where the Cameroonian players are able to put all of the junk behind them and press on for a well-earned goal.
England manager Phil Neville saw neither of these as viable understandings of what happened and instead decided to use his postgame interview to chide Cameroon—who, remember, England had just beaten by three goals—for not keeping their composure. Neville also played the “think of the children” card when he said the actions of Cameroon would set a bad example for young girls watching everywhere. This, of course, is coming from a guy who was parachuted to one of the top managerial positions in women’s soccer on name recognition alone and then had to delete his Twitter account once past jokes about battering his wife started to resurface. Neville could at least be justified in his frustrations if his concerns were about some of the dirty plays that some Cameroonian players pulled on his squad—an elbow was thrown not seven minutes into the match—but instead he unnecessarily focused on the emotional reactions of his opponents, as if emotions in the sport were a new concept to him.
But regardless of where you stand on any of the number of debates that will emerge from this game, the one thing that probably everyone can agree on is another statement from Neville’s speech: “I didn’t enjoy it.”