In terms of the global audience it has reached, the Women’s World Cup has been a success, despite what your local misogynist pub bore may tell you. Incorporating the controversy and brutality of that England v Cameroon match in Valenciennes and a host of other VAR decisions, there have been worldwide headlines and exposure.The fastidiousness of the lawmakers’ technology-powered brainchild has inadvertently written the type of cruel narratives of pain and suffering that make the good copy and poignant images to bring fresh eyes to the game.
Tuesday night and Japan’s women’s team were representing the rest of the world. They had the Netherlands pinned back, and looked all set to break the monopoly European teams – plus holders USA – had on the Women’s World Cup last eight.
Chance after chance came and went for the Japanese. But then came the final insult, a last-minute refereeing decision to the letter of the law but neither in the spirit of the game nor in the interest of entertainment. It stopped a decent contest dead in its tracks.
When Dutch forward Vivianne Miedema’s shot came off the limp arm of Japan defender Saki Kumagai, the Japanese manager, Asako Takakura, looked to the heavens. She knew that once Melissa Borjas, the Honduran referee, had pointed to the spot, there could only be one outcome. Fifa’s directives mean that the ball coming off a hand will almost certainly result in a foul being awarded.
And when VAR is around, the die is well and truly cast. There is now no longer such a thing as ‘ball to hand’ and it being waved away as ‘accidental’, as we had been used to throughout our football lives. Handball has become, well, handball, an offence from which there’s very little recourse to escape.
Japan’s only hope would be Lieke Martens missing from the spot, which had been made even more likely now that those sat in the front of the video screen have licence to point out goalkeepers stepping forward from their line, as happened for Scotland in the group stages. Martens made no mistake, and Takakura was left to sum up in sanguine fashion.
“Now we have VAR, for the players sometimes cruel decisions have been made,” she said, when she was entitled to rail against the cruelty that the new directives have brought to bear. This was the seventh penalty awarded for handball in 44 games of the tournament, a bewilderingly high rate compared to that in the Premier League.
Casting the mind back to the opening rounds of the men’s World Cup 12 months ago, and the group stage was littered with the newfangled technology stepping in to decide matches. Australia were denied a penalty against France, and then Germany did not receive what they thought was a lifeline when Toni Kroos was ruled to have played South Korea’s Kim Young-gwon onside. The defending champions thus crashed out.
Thereafter, bar a couple of cameo appearances, until the final when Croatia’s Ivan Perisic was penalised for handball in his penalty area, it rather felt like VAR had been discontinued, having been such a dominant narrative. Whether this was a matter of happenstance or Fifa moving the dial is not known and unlikely to be revealed, but there has been no such let-up in the women’s tournament, setting aside those reports that Chinese referee Qin Liang had twice overruled VAR so as not to further antagonise the Cameroon players in Valenciennes.
The women’s tournament seems to have become some kind of ratcheted-up mock exam for the rest of football, with its teams paying heavy consequences.
The combination of ultra-VAR and the new handball rules, set by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the Laws of the Game, and the literal interpretations being imposed in France has bordered on being toxic.
On Wednesday, Fifa refereeing czar Pierluigi Collina, his eyes blazing with typical fervour, defended the rule changes that have brought such ire, cutting off those who asked about VAR, penalties and offsides at the knees. He also denied that the Women’s World Cup has been used as a testing ground for the adjustments made to the laws by IFAB. According to Collina, those at the FIFA-U20 tournament in Poland, and at the Copa America and Africa Cup of Nations have also been subject to the same rules.
He was less decisive on handball, and the question of a ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ silhouette that has become key to whether a offence has been committed. To the layman, it appears that defenders are being penalised for being unable to get their hands and arms out of the way.
There is nothing ‘natural’ about having to hold your hands by your sides when you are closing down an attacker. An obvious development, should this interpretation continue and the game’s innate cynicism take hold, would be attackers looking to aim the ball at defenders’ hands, a piece of gamesmanship to rival diving in the box.
The signs from these summer tournaments – the Afcon will not actually have VAR until the quarter-finals – is that, in tandem with VAR, the new, far tighter handball rules could represent the biggest change to the game since the backpass was outlawed in 1992.
And while the backpass change heralded a vast change in outlook, immediately making the game far more attacking, the new handball rule, during this World Cup and in the Champions League final, has proved to be a passion killer. For Liverpool v Tottenham, the planet sat down to watch the showpiece only for the spectacle to be sunk by a soft, if ‘correct’, decision to give handball against Moussa Sissoko after just 24 seconds.
At the other end of a match, Japan’s women, the better team, paid a similar price. Collina’s warning that the Premier League would have to adhere to the new handball rules when VAR comes in next season can only bring a prediction of controversy and complaint.