The Women's World Cup Has A Refereeing Problem

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Photo: Robert Cianflone (Getty Images)

Despite what our lovely commentariat might believe, we here at Deadspin do not have a quota of anti-VAR posts to hit. If it feels that way during the Women’s World Cup, it’s only because FIFA, through the kind of casually negligent behavior that typifies its treatment of the women’s game, has put its referees in an awful pickle, having to deal with a slew of new rules and technologies of which VAR is only the most noticeable.


On June 1, FIFA officially launched its yearly rule changes. Two of the changes have made an especially pronounced impact in the World Cup: the goalkeeper’s penalty kick goal line rule and the new handball definition.

The new rule applied to goalkeepers during penalty kicks, and the exacerbating decision to make it subject to VAR review, is, as we’ve said, very bad. The rule itself seems pointless—was anyone in the world really losing their minds when goalies, who already have a huge disadvantage when it comes to stopping penalties, inched “too far” forward when going for a save?—but whatever. Applying the rule so strictly and making it reviewable by video replay is borderline criminal. Goalkeepers who’ve trained all their lives to defend spot kicks under one set of rules have had to totally adjust their approach before the biggest tournament of their lives after being given barely any notice.

We’ve already seen the new goal line rule rear its ugly head in least two games so far in this World Cup, when Nigeria and Scotland both fell victim to it. Both teams saw their opponents miss a penalty only for VAR to spot their keepers’ feet drifting too far over the line, and both suffered when their opponents scored from their second attempts.

The new handball rule has changed things at this tournament, too. The updated language there, which sought to remove some of the rule’s ambiguity, has meant that almost every time a ball hits a defender’s arm in the box, the referee is supposed to award a penalty. The stricter rule, again coupled with the warping effect of slow-mo VAR replays, has resulted in soft handball penalties that feel less, not more, fair.


So how could this have been avoided? The most obvious solution would have been to introduce these new rules after the summer tournaments. Why test things out in a tournament that comes around every four years, instead of in the smaller stakes of the domestic leagues? Both in terms of what the new rules are changing (the damn World Cup) and the spotlight on them from a global audience, it made more sense to just do this change, say, August 1.


Of course, if FIFA was dead set on introducing the rules for whatever reason, then the next logical choice would’ve been to just not have VAR at the World Cup. That would’ve come with its own set of problems, though. Love it or (if you’re smart) hate it, VAR is now a reality of global soccer. Even the Premier League, the last high-profile holdout, will introduce VAR starting this the upcoming season. (Though, thankfully, they will leave the “off the line” rulings to the refs on the field, not VAR.) Players and coaches in the women’s game also pushed for VAR’s inclusion this summer as a matter of fairness, since it was used in the men’s World Cup last year.

Where FIFA fucked up on that front was in its implementation of VAR this summer. While the movement in favor of its inclusion began last year, FIFA only approved VAR for the Women’s World Cup on March 15 of this year. That meant the women’s referees had just a few months of pre-tournament training with the technology, since no women’s soccer domestic league or international tournament had used VAR prior to the World Cup.


Clearly, as seen in the confusion with its use, the long delays in play it has caused, and the widespread dissatisfaction with its presence, FIFA made a mistake by springing VAR on the women’s game for the first time this summer. If FIFA had gone about this the right way, it would’ve first gotten top-level referees familiar with VAR through domestic league play, or, if that wasn’t possible, it would’ve tested the system out in a variety of other international competitions and friendly tournaments.

It is fair to point out that few if any women’s domestic leagues could probably afford everything required to implement VAR, and that the women’s game has fewer high profile non-World Cup tournaments in which to try it out in international play. But to treat the Women’s World Cup as the guinea pig for VAR’s use in the women’s game, when the issue of VAR’s implementation in women’s soccer should’ve been eminently foreseeable for years now, is just about the worst solution possible. If you’re going to do VAR, you have to at least try to do it right.


FIFA listened (belatedly) to calls for VAR at the World Cup, and it gave its unprepared referees the unwanted responsibility of properly implementing new rules that were only made official six days before the first game of the tournament. These changes were made under the name of equality, but it’s hard to imagine FIFA implementing similarly dramatic changes so haphazardly coming into a men’s World Cup. FIFA set its referees up to fail at the Women’s World Cup, all in the name of technology no one fully understands and rules no one particularly likes.