Friday 23 August 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Battle of Valenciennes shows women's game not immune from anarchy'

Heat of Battle: Cameroon’s Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene makes her point to England’s Lucy Bronze as referee Qin Liang looks on. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Heat of Battle: Cameroon’s Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene makes her point to England’s Lucy Bronze as referee Qin Liang looks on. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Paul Hayward

There are PR plotters out there who will tell you games like this are worth their weight in gold: World Cup ties that are volcanic with emotion, indignation, controversy and legal to-ing and fro-ing to keep pub arguments going all night.

If England 3 Cameroon 0 was another step towards global popularity for women's football, first there was the serious business of wading through hurt feelings, claims of injustice and match officials apparently buckling under pressure.

Any profile-strategist would rejoice to hear Phil Neville, the England manager, deliver a speech in defence of the spirit of the game while his opposite number, Alain Djeumfa, lamented a "miscarriage of justice".

This is how to make the back pages - and the front - as well as every news bulletin. This is how to turn a rich country beating a poorer one in an early knock-out round into a cause célèbre, a day of infamy, the kind of match people will be citing for years.

By then, anger will have subsided. By Thursday even, England will stride into a quarter-final in Le Havre with the battle of Valenciennes already a receding memory, even if some of the bruises are slow to fade.

There is a risk of being too cynical and framing everything as a ratings exercise, an audience-grab.

Cameroon players appeal for VAR against an offside call. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
Cameroon players appeal for VAR against an offside call. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

Diehard moral relativists should note that England captain Steph Houghton might have had her World Cup campaign ended by the disgraceful challenge of Alexandra Takounda, who went straight for her ankle near the touchline.

This was No 1 on Neville's list of complaints, and it was appalling that the referee, Qin Liang, confined herself to booking Takounda, perhaps out of a fear of further inflaming Cameroon's rage.

Equally you could argue that the growth of women's football was bound to deliver it to a point where Corinthianism is swallowed up by slanging matches - especially with VAR on hand to confuse players who apparently refuse to study how it actually operates.

This was a second-round tie with two outbreaks of industrial action on the Cameroon side after a pair of VAR-led goal decisions, not to mention a spitting incident, an elbow to the jaw of England's Nikita Parris that prompted only a yellow card and that nasty ankle tackle on Houghton right at the end.

Cameroon manager steps past a prone Steph Houghton after she had been the victim of a poor tackle. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Cameroon manager steps past a prone Steph Houghton after she had been the victim of a poor tackle. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Cameroon withdrew their labour with the frequency of a train dispute but returned to work twice for this game to earn a place in the annals of women's football's development.

Those who observed this chaos will doubtless split into two camps.

There will be those who focus on Cameroon's refusal to accept two correct refereeing calls while ignoring their own good fortune in not having two players sent off. In this version, Cameroonian violent play and Luddite disdain for VAR was a violation of the high standards you see in the women's game. They will identify with Neville's cri de coeur: "I sat through 90 minutes of football there and felt ashamed." He also told the BBC: "It didn't feel like football. This is going out worldwide. Young girls are watching that. I can't stand here and say that's right."

Neville's commendable wish to see women's football be more wholesome or virtuous than parts of the men's game will probably not withstand the tides of history. At women's World Cup games, there is no aggressive chanting, no obnoxious posturing in bars and restaurants and no rewriting of national anthems to accommodate hard-right lyrics. Frankly, the games feel like an escape from the worst of the men's game. But with raised intensity on the field and higher stakes, financially and otherwise, comes a more volatile tone, which spread to the crowd here as spectators reported feeling uncomfortable leaving the stadium.

Where Fifa are playing with fire is expecting teams to accept marginal game-changing decisions without showing clearly on the big screens how those calls were made. Cameroon were already upset about their own error in playing a backpass that was picked up by their goalkeeper (Houghton scored from the indirect free-kick) when Ellen White's fourth goal in three games was confirmed on review. That brought the first industrial stoppage as Cameroon seemed to consider bailing out on the game.

When Cameroon had a goal of their own ruled out you just know their tools would go down. They were inconsolable. Sucked into this disorder, England lost their composure and started racking up errors before a rehearsed corner kick from Toni Duggan to Alex Greenwood made the game safe. Duggan had earlier held her arm out to show phlegm deposited, deliberately or otherwise, by Cameroon's Augustine Ejangue.

All in all, not the most edifying spectacle, but one that affirmed the need for VAR to explain itself better, to the level of cricket and rugby, and for serious foul play - elbows, ankle tackles - to be punished with straight red cards. The victim stance of Cameroon was unconvincing because the goal decisions were correct.

In these deeply adversarial times, women's World Cup football has taken a good long look at conflict and chaos. Now it must decide whether it prefers life that way. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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