Commentary

Dispatch from Rennes: VAR's micro-refereeing is ruining France 2019

It might be said that the 2019 World Cup has been slow to start. It’s certainly not slow to stop when the Video Assistant Referee gets involved. In tonight’s third group game between France and Nigeria it took a full six minutes between Ngozi Ebere’s foul on Viviane Asseyi and the resultant penalty being scored. If FIFA was looking for a way to kill soccer dead, they’ve found the perfect solution.

Nigeria can count itself extremely hard done by to have lost this game, 1-0. A twice-taken penalty on the word of the VAR was about the only way a very poor France team was going to score tonight. Wendie Renard put her first effort wide to the right of Chiamake Nnadozie’s goal, brushing the post. VAR Danny Makkelie, no doubt with the aid of a precision computer, then ajudged that Nnandozie had left her line a fraction of a second too early. Nnandozie was booked for this infringement. After some justified Nigerian protest, Renard tried again and this time her penalty went in. It was one of only four French efforts out of 22 shots that were on target.

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Nigeria’s coach Thomas Dennerby was not in the mood to chat after the game. Asked for his opinion on the penalty kick, and the re-take, he said abruptly, “It is better I don’t say anything than I give my honest opinion.” What else was worth talking about? “My girls are heroes,” he added. “Of course, I am disappointed with the result. The girls followed the match plan."

That plan was to hold out and take a point. Without the VAR’s double intervention, that plan would have been well fulfilled thanks to the collective effort of his robust backline. While Nigeria did nothing to deserve victory in this game (no efforts on target, and just two shots all night), it did not deserve to lose the way it did. The VAR as applied at this World Cup is rapidly alienating fans and players alike, as well as turning soccer into a drawn-out farce with pernickety and frequently unjust interventions.

Enough of that for a couple of paragraphs. What about this much-lauded French team, who came into the tournament firing on all four cylinders by beating South Korea, then edged past Norway in a game it perhaps only deserved to draw? This is the team that could very well face the USA in a quarterfinal in Paris on June 28. Tonight Les Bleues were roared on by 28,000 loud and enthusiastic home fans. Expectations are high, trending upwards.

France dominated the first half, but it didn’t exactly boss it. Nigeria was capable of winning the ball in midfield and initiating its own attacks, and the West Africans broke away a couple of times with speed and purpose. Sadly, the final pass was missing every time and they created no clear-cut opportunities.

The host team’s chances were more realized, but only halfway so. The closest they came to the Nigerian goal was a couple of yards – shots went wide, and headers went over. In truth, the forwards rotated in by French coach Corinne Diacre, Valerie Gauvin and Viviane Asseyi, were missing more than just the goal – they also lacked presence, first touch, penetration and speed. Meanwhile, the home crowd was missing the rested Eugenie Le Sommer and Kadidiatou Diani.

Le Sommer and Diani were duly introduced after an hour for Gauvin and Delphine Cascarino, but made little difference. The lightweight and ineffective Asseyi stayed on, and it was the French No. 18 who went down under Ebere’s challenge in the 73rd. minute. Referee Melissa Borjas initially turned the penalty appeal down. Then the VAR invited her to take another look. She took several looks, as did everyone else. A close call. A very difficult call, in fact. Was Asseyi pushed, or did she fly? The kind of call you can’t even make for sure after 15 replays. The kind of call that even VAR can’t cure.

Borjas finally pointed to the spot, then dismissed Ebere for her second bookable offense, and who’s to say she was wrong? That Makkelie felt obliged to direct a re-take, however, should have outraged more than just Ennerby and his players. It should move anyone who loves this game to protest at this reprehensible trend for micro-refereeing.

Because on top of that you can add more protests to the wafer-thin offside decisions and the ludicrous handball calls that the VARs are ordering down to field level. This is not what the Laws of the Game were written for. It’s not how soccer should be officiated. This experiment’s a failure that needs a fundamental re-think by a panel of people who are familiar with the idea of common sense.

Or it needs to be scrapped for good and we all go back to accepting the truth that in life, love and sport, nothing can ever be perfect. 

25 comments about "Dispatch from Rennes: VAR's micro-refereeing is ruining France 2019".
  1. James Madison, June 17, 2019 at 8:58 p.m.

    What the VAR missed on Renard's PK was her unfair stutter or pause that faked the Nigeria keeper off her line.  If the penalty kick law does not already require the kicker to make a steady run without fakery, as Renard committed, it should.  As it is, instead of the kick being retaken, Renard should have been whistled and cautioned for unsporting behavior with the restart an IFK for Nigeria.

    In the previous instance in which a PK was ordered retaken after an apparent save, the keeper had unquestionably jumped.

    The other situation in which VAR has intervened unfairly has been handling.  On two occasions a player was judged to have handled within the penalty area merely because her arm was in an unnatural position when the ball struck it.  In actuality, the player had no clue where the ball was and was clearly not intending to play the ball with her hand.  Some obtuse VAR judge or set of judges took a cue designed to help CR's judge handling vs. ball hit hand and converted it into an independent offense. 

  2. John Soares, June 17, 2019 at 9:09 p.m.

    VAR is ruining soccer... well I'm not sure, ruining.
    OK, YOU ARE CORRECT!!!

  3. beautiful game, June 17, 2019 at 9:29 p.m.

    After the referee sees no irregularity and 15+ minutes later he stops play because of a message from VAR is not what soccer is all about.

  4. Wooden Ships, June 17, 2019 at 9:42 p.m.

    Your last sentence has been my position from jump. You’ve screwed the pooch faux soccer people.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, June 17, 2019 at 10:43 p.m.

    I was watching part of the Sweden-Chile match today and there was a VAR penalty awarded to Sweden for a handball in the box. IMO the defender knew exactly what she was doing, carried her arm in front of her and blocked a cross. The position of her torso made it very difficult for the referee to see the handling. It was both deliberate and cynical. Until VAR I expect this player habitually cheated in this sly manner.

    This wasn't the only VAR involvment, but the center rejected other review opportunities.

    WS, I hope that as the centers become more comfortable with VAR, that they will be conservative in stopping play to review video.

    The idea of using VAR to strictly enforce (mili-seconds) the Law against keepers but not against the penalty takers seems brutally unfair and not in keeping with the spirit of the laws.   

  6. stewart hayes, June 17, 2019 at 11:04 p.m.

    Why even have refs?  Everything can be decided by cameras and video screens showing the players what to do.  The penalty called against Nigeria was not clear at all, it looked 50/50 to me.  The whole thing was a debacle.  

  7. R2 Dad, June 17, 2019 at 11:25 p.m.

    The recent re-interpretation of Handling is the culprit. Any revision like this should be implemented AFTER the major tournaments, to ease the burden on officials. Pros will now be kicking balls at arms, as per the CL final match at 30 seconds in. Comment above on the PK stutter step is long overdue—unsporting and cardable IMHO.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, June 17, 2019 at 11:44 p.m.

    Good points R2.

  9. Peter Bechtold, June 18, 2019 at 1:35 a.m.

    There is another aspect to this VAR issue. Almost everyone agreed that it worked very well at the mens' WC in Russia last year. So naturally they wanted to use it in France also. What went wrong? To my eyes it was clear that at least half of the lady referees are not up to good standards(yet). So the VAR groups try to help out and interfere more than usual.
    Have you noticed something else : Most teams have a woman as head coach and a battery of men as assistants. Whenever there is a delay,due to injury,e.g. the male assistants come over and chat with the "head coach". This does not bother me,except that in refereeing,and perhaps coaching, womens'soccer has not been around long enough to produce a large enough number of well-qualified individuals. But "public opinion" expects the right gender.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, June 18, 2019 at 9:49 a.m.

    So the problem is caused by employing women as coaches and officials instead of men? I am speechless.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, June 18, 2019 at 4:55 p.m.

    Okay I will reply again. This is what I didn't say earlier.

    From your comments I gather that you are looking at the problem with gender based stereotypes. All observers have cultural bias, and the brain analyses problems using patterns, i.e., stereotypes. Both of these cannot be avoided, but we can minimize the error that these both introduce to problem solving by ackowleging our limitations and stepping "outside the box" while problem solving. We may still end up a stereotypical solution, but only after considering if the situation was an exception to the stereotypes. 

    Although I don't always agree with everything a coach has done, I have great respect for our US coaches, including our present and former WNT coaches. I greatly respect April Heinrichs and Jill Ellis, as well as the Chelsea Ladies coach, Emma Hayes.

    While I have criticized Heinrichs and Ellis for not bringing positional play to the US WNT instead of relying on the same athletic style of play that has been successful for 30 years, I am fully confident that Ellis understands the style and could coach it. While the USWNT is not playing a short passing possession style, I can see that Ellis applies much of the Dutch Style principles to the US's play.

    Where do I disagree with what you said? In any profession, there will be different levels of performance. Some performances are better than others. I don't blame the differences on things like gender. 

  12. Dave Verbonitz, June 18, 2019 at 7:29 a.m.

    The worst VAR call I've seen so far occurred back in France's opening game against South Korea. A beautiful goal on a volley by a French player was taken away for offside. Her torso was not the slightest bit ahead of the  defender; maybe her left toe was marginally offside. In pre-VAR days this would be a case of awarding the benefit of the doubt to the attacker and commending the AR for keeping the flag down. Question: Is FIFA using the MLS standard of "clear and obvious" to correct a referring error? Calls like the one I've described certainly don't fall into this category. 

  13. Ian Plenderleith replied, June 18, 2019 at 9:28 a.m.

    Dave, my Fifa-issued media guide says VAR will be used „to correct obvious errors and deal with serious missed incidents in a few pre-determined match-changing situations - goals, penalties, direct red cards, mistaken identity“. To me, neither the original penalty call nor Nnadozie moving off her line were „obvious errors“ on the referees’ part. 

  14. Peter Bechtold replied, June 18, 2019 at 1:03 p.m.

    B.Ashpole@9:49: I am speechless at your lack of logic, or reading ability. Please try again.

  15. Bill Riviere, June 18, 2019 at 8:25 a.m.

    I agree.  VAR in this WC is an abomination.  For one thing,  VAR is intimidating center referees.  How would you like to have a group of judges with electronic means at their disposal ready to second guess your every call/noncall?  It is making them tentative and unsure.

    Also, there were several rule changes made effective June 1 by FIFA and referees and the players have not had any time to referee/play under them.  One of them involves handling; another GK's position on PK's.  And guess what all the controversial calls are about.

    I thought the PK by France was earned.  The Nigerian defender clearly kicked the back of the French striker's left leg and took her down.  The center missed it and the AR should have seen it also.  Fitting result is a PK and a yellow with a possible consideration for DOGSO.  Unfitting result is a second chance at the missed PK.  Terrible interpretation of the Laws.

    The rules on handling do call for it to be called if the arms are in an unusual position for what the player is doing, i.e. trying to make herself bigger--even though there may not be a deliberate move toward the ball.

    Offside, per the Laws, is to be called if head, torso or legs/foot are in an offside position.  Arms are not to be called.

    VAR should be dropped for the rest of the WC in the elimination round.

  16. stewart hayes replied, June 18, 2019 at 12:13 p.m.

    I did not see a clear replay so thanks for that.  I only saw the FIFA highlights which for some reason are not clear.  But abandoning VAR completely cannot be the answer.  The problem is the rules have always been left to the referees to interpret and now we have video making everything more precise so the letter of the law is now applied.  In the spirit of the law a keeper moving along her line is perfectly legal even if she is a tad over the line when ball contact is made but the letter of the law says not so.  Perhaps the best solution for penalties is to allow any movement from the gk and give the kicer a time limit but permit any kind of feinting, like 3 seconds for the ball to be kicked.     

  17. Kent James replied, June 18, 2019 at 2:47 p.m.

    I don't think CR's are intimidated by VAR.  I refereed for 17 years at the college level, and I would have been happy to have VAR to review calls I was unsure about.  I'd rather be overruled and the right call made than not overruled and have to live with the bad call. Referees will be judged with or without VAR, but good video evidence should be able to establish whether or not a call was correct most of the time. Nothing like being right on 95% of all your calls, then "blowing the game" because you couldn't see well enough to get the game critical call right. 

  18. David Quinn, June 18, 2019 at 9:38 a.m.

    Soccer should adapt the offside rule to be somewhat in line with the Hockey rule. In Hockey if I have the toe of one skate on the line before the puck enters I would not be offside. If soccer were to add this it would make offside traps even more dangerous and should then see the benefit of the doubt going to the attacking team as per what the rules say now. I truly feel that too often the benefit is going to the defensive team. Just my opinion so take for what it's worth. :-)

  19. Peter Bechtold replied, June 18, 2019 at 1:01 p.m.

    DQ: Good observation; I like it.
    Now, how can this be forwarded to the FIFA Rules Board ?

  20. Bill Riviere, June 18, 2019 at 12:25 p.m.

    The Laws allow feinting and stutter stepping in the act of approaching the ball during a PK, but the motion has to be a forward continuous motion at all times.  Kicker cannot stop. If kicker stops and scores the kick is retaken.  Other consequences if no score.

  21. Glenn Auve, June 18, 2019 at 1:13 p.m.

    IFAB has ruined the game. I don't recall anyone crying out for these ridiculous rule changes that seem to be the root of much of the problems. It's a body changing things to justify their own existence. And to do it right before the WC is ridiculous. Most of the referees on the field have never had to use this VAR system before. So they're not totally used to it or the protocols (which are also always changing). No one can seem to agree what a "clear and obvious error" is. And the automatic caution to the GK for being an inch off the line is way over the top punishment. When some one gets sent off in the knock out rounds for this I expect we'll see an even bigger outcry than the large one we've already seen. And the shootouts are going to really be marathons since the rules have changed to make it even more difficult ont he GKs. It's like FIFA/IFAB want a PK to be a 100% goal now and they want more and more of them to boot. IFAB exists on Twitter and FB. I receommend everyone let them know how you feel about them breaking the game.

  22. Ginger Peeler, June 18, 2019 at 4:12 p.m.

    Okay. A little background information: VAR stands for Video Assist Referee System. There were 27 referees and 48 assistant referees chosen by FIFA. These women were rigorously tested to assure they are the best of the best, beginning in September of 2015.
    They all had VAR training in Qatar in February. Very few of the women’s professional leagues are working with VAR, so FIFA brought in 15 male VAR refs. Ten of them were active in the 2018 Men’s World Cup. So this is not the “first rodeo” for any of them. What they’re trying to do is help the referee make the correct call. Obviously, the LOTG regarding handballs is going to need more fine tuning since everyone seems to be confused. The position of goal keeper when the foot strikes the ball as a player takes a PK seems clear, but somewhat in favor of the offense. Over the years, many, many refs have turned a blind eye to the blatant encroachment by the keeper when the kicker first moves. This was supposed to correct that, but it may require tweaking after this World Cup is over. What I can’t figure out is why the VAR calls are taking such a long, long time to resolve. Why were questionable infractions resolved so quickly for the men when everything seems to be moving in slow motion for the women? As often as not, the CR just stands in the field waiting. Finally, she makes the TV signal and then moves to the side of the field to review the play in question. Is FIFA using different software? What’s causing the continual delays? Are the CRs dragging their feet. Are the VAR refs dragging their feet? Are they experiencing rolling brownouts? My pet peeve is the color commentators (usually) ascribing fouls to intent by the offender; as in: it’s a foul if it’s deliberate; not a foul if it’s not on purpose. Please, make everybody who calls soccer games take the referee’s course to study and learn the LOTG. And make them refs some games, too. 

  23. R2 Dad replied, June 18, 2019 at 9:01 p.m.

    Ginger, this could quickly be resolved in the booth if there was a referee in there to catch the talking heads from spouting nonsense. Would be much better theater but the “personalities “ don’t like to be caught out as idiots.

  24. Ginger Peeler replied, June 18, 2019 at 10:32 p.m.

    Too true!

  25. Ric Fonseca replied, June 19, 2019 at 3:52 p.m.

    Excellent observation Ginger!!!  "Talking heads," no matter which language they speak, are just that, talking heads with their heads sometimes way up above "their noses" or where the sun don't shine."  Imagine, rather, now I don't know how many of you are bilingual, specifically English-Spanish, but I've been pulling out whatever hair I still have, when I hear so much nonsense and BS coming from iether the English or Spanish language broadcasts.  Granted, these "talking heads," do know the game, however, it is utterly ridiculous to hear one of them specifically tell us what a player is thinking, or my biggest pet peeve, when they question a play, or what, e.g. Zardes was thinking when he "headed/redirected" the ball last night for a goal.  And as someone above said, taking a few officiating courses covering all levels of plays, from youth-rec to adult-amateur, pro or semi-pro would help.  Here's a tidbit from my archives: Aboput 15 years ago, after my college season was over, my student athletes still had to attend practice, twice per week, and two other days attend classroom sessions, several of them being 100% related to the LOTG. Imagine my then players, some very good and some not so good, being aghast to learn that there are "only" 18 LOTG, and when they received a refereeing assignment as part of the Physical Education/Intercollegiate Athletics and academic unites requirements.  Ho boy, I could go on and on, though I must say that about half a dozen of my players got themselves high school paying officiating gigs (high school soccer in SoCal if played in winter months- late November to late February) and last I heard one was continuing on in the adult leagues.  Bottom line, VAR can be a pain in the whistle, but compare it with American football, or MLB, and/or NBA review sessions, and maybe we'll change our positions - for or against.  PLAY ON!!! 

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