Saturday 19 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Goals galore is evidence enough of a worthy World Cup, despite referees' VAR nonsense'

Rose Lavelle of the U.S. Photo: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Rose Lavelle of the U.S. Photo: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The faults and rewards of the Women's World Cup are those of any World Cup. The group stages featured too many weak links, too much cagey football from teams playing themselves into the tournament and too great a sense that the stronger sides were doing just enough to qualify for the latter stages.

But as the field has been winnowed down to the main contenders and every game begins to count, there's been a shifting of gears.

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Last weekend's match between Norway and Australia, won on penalties by the former after a 1-1 draw, and France's 2-1 victory over Brazil the following evening were utterly enthralling while Tuesday's semi-final between the USA and England is a mouthwatering prospect.

It's worth stressing the tournament's excellence as a sporting event because so much of the surrounding chatter seems to regard it as something else entirely. In one corner you have 'The Lads' using it to belittle women's sport in general and insisting nobody watches this World Cup for any reason other than Political Correctness.

In the other are those whose main interest in the tournament is the opportunity it provides for ponderous displays of performative gender wokeness. One side is as tedious as the other and neither seems able to appreciate the World Cup in its own right.

The exasperated tweet by the former England player Eni Aluko - "Players are not there to sell the game to you. They play for their nation, families, supporters, dreams and lots of things better than them. We don't play for people to be 'persuaded'," - seems the best response to the notion that the tournament is merely a weapon in some larger battle of the sexes.

The finals have raised questions about the workability of the VAR system for soccer. In both the Scotland-Argentina and USA-Spain matches over five minutes elapsed between the initial award of a penalty and the taking of that penalty after VAR consultation.

This is unsustainable. Saying that rugby crowds don't mind such delays is beside the point. Rugby fans are used to stoppages and hold-ups at line-out and scrum time. Soccer is a very different game. The "let justice be done though the heavens fall" line which holds that any length of delay is worthwhile because right will eventually be done has also taken a battering.

In the Spain-USA game, referee Katalin Kulscar of Hungary took ages to examine the VAR evidence after awarding the latter a penalty for a trip on Rose Lavelle. Yet her decision to stick with the initial call seemed wrong. Seemed, that is, because even with VAR you couldn't be entirely certain. It all boiled down to interpretation.

VAR also seems to exacerbate the current tendency of referees to award penalties for what in the NBA are termed "ticky-tack fouls". The logical conclusion of the 'there seemed to be some kind of slight contact there alright' argument would be the abolition of tackling inside the box. With a new rule change which virtually denies the possibility of accidental handball, penalties look destined to play an excessive role in the game.

There have been claims that poor refereeing at the finals is due to the 'sexism' of Fifa in introducing VAR and new rules about the movement of goalkeepers at penalties in the women's tournament while not doing so at men's championships currently taking place.

Yet the worst decisions have had nothing to do with those rules. In overlooking an offside by Carli Lloyd against Sweden and awarding Lavelle that penalty, the referees appeared overawed by the standing of the USA within the world game. No technology can satisfactorily address that.

Lavelle's Greg Louganis style dive, coupled with the vicious behaviour of Cameroon against England, showed that cynicism is not entirely the preserve of the more televised sex.

That might not be an entirely bad thing given the condescension towards the players which still rears its head on occasion.

It seems weird now that in the tournament's first week people were seriously suggesting women footballers needed shorter pitches to run on and smaller goals to defend. For their own good like. The goals per game average is just under three, higher than any men's World Cup since 1970. It's hardly a significant difference.

For all the guff on either side, the Women's World Cup is no more or no less than a terrific football tournament. That is no small thing to be. It's enough.

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