Commentary

Dispatch from Valenciennes: The World Cup field is leveling out

It wasn’t a classic, and there was only one goal, but Italy against Brazil was something we’ve seen little of so far in this 24-team tournament – an even game that either side could have won. No steel-curtain defending for 90 minutes, no one-sided chicken shoot, rather this was the kind of balanced but intense contest we’ll hopefully see more of in the final two and a half weeks of play. Brazil won the game, but Italy won the group.
 
Even more pleasing was the old-fashioned refereeing performance of Lucila Venegas, who whistled an impeccable game. It’s odd to focus on the fact that the referee was competent, but it’s suddenly become a pertinent issue. Not once did we hear from the VAR all evening, although Venegas likely delayed the decisive penalty for a few seconds just to double check.
 
That shouldn’t have been necessary. Her perfect positioning on the 72nd minute play allowed her to reach a quick, correct decision – Elena Linari clearly blocking Debinha’s darting run into the penalty area. The Italians protested, presumably hoping that the VAR might somehow burnish them with a reprieve on some fastidious pretext. Thankfully, there was no intervention this time, and Marta converted the spot-kick for the game’s only goal.
 
Venegas clamped down on physical play early on, something largely absent from the officiating up until now. Leticia Santos saw yellow in the 12th minute for a foul on Barbara Bonansea, while Elisa Bartoli went into the book three minutes later for sliding in recklessly on Debinha. It was reassuring to see two of the most positive players on the field receiving official protection.
 
Indeed Italy and Brazil boast several skillful players, but lack a disciplined way to coordinate them. While there’s bags of charisma on both sides, and plenty of will to initiate attacking moves, the game was also littered with needless loss of possession, breakdowns, poor first touch, loose balls and over-hit passes. But the first half especially was nonetheless exciting to watch. Italy produced two clear chances to Brazil’s one – Debinha’s delightful back-flick from a corner-kick that prompted Laura Giuliani into a stunning reflex save.
 
At the other end it was Barbara versus Barbara. Bonansea’s probing low shot was turned around the post by her Brazilian namesake, while her sharp volley went straight at the goalkeeper after a flowing counter-attack down the right orchestrated by the excellence of Alia Guagni. In the second half, though, only Brazil looked like scoring. Andressinha clipped the Italian bar with a free-kick, while Kathellen headed inches wide from a free-kick - set-pieces are one of the Brazilian strengths. Then substitute Beatriz, on for the quiet Cristiane, almost scored with her first touch, but glanced the ball just wide with the outside of her left foot.
 
Italy did have the ball in the net in the 29th minute, when Cristiana Girelli received an Aurora Galli back-header, and juggled it nicely past a defender before completing the move with a deft finish. The Italian fans began to celebrate, but it was correctly cancelled out for a very clear offside. As has become the norm in this World Cup, however, the flag didn’t come until some seconds after the offside infringement, when the ball was already in the back of the net.
 
This is becoming as problematic as the VAR interventions. FIFA’s wonky reasoning is that the ARs should now always wait to flag in case a goal is scored and it somehow wasn’t offside after all. Yet in so many cases, when the player is a yard or more beyond the second to last defender, it’s pointless to wait for a goal to be scored, only then to disappoint all those fans who are not sitting at an angle to see that the goal was obviously not going to count. Or should fans now all delay their celebrations for a few seconds after the ball’s gone in, just in case that late, late flag is raised?
 
These delays are a painful side-effect of VAR. The cheers of the Italian fans turned to boos and jeers. They shouldn’t be aimed at the match officials, but at whichever panel of Zurich technocrats came up with another dumb directive that’s sucking the joy out of being a supporter.
 
Anyway, thanks to Australia’s 4-1 win over Jamaica, Brazil finished third in this group and must now play either Germany or France in the round of 16. Both of those opponents will likely be too strong for such an aging, error-prone team. Australia faces Norway, while Italy will probably play either China or Nigeria – two opponents they are capable of beating but, on tonight’s showing, may have difficulty in breaking down. Expect extra-time and penalty shootouts. If the VAR intervenes, expect those shootouts to finish just in time for the quarterfinals.

Photo: foto2press/Imago/Icon Sportswire

5 comments about "Dispatch from Valenciennes: The World Cup field is leveling out".
  1. Bill Riviere, June 19, 2019 at 8:41 a.m.

    Good analysis of the match, Ian, but this time I have to disagree with you to some degree on your offsides comments.

    First, the "late" flags have nothing to do with VAR.  For quite a number of years, the Laws and Procedures have called for the offside infraction to be called only after the player in an offside position at the time of the ball being played plays the ball or interferes with a defender or clearly gains an advantage.  Faiirly frequently I have seen a player in an offside position realize it and stop playing; thus no infraction.

    I also think if you watch carefully, the ARs are mostly not waiting until a goal is scored; it just seems it because the play will continue after the flag is up.  

    However, there are instances when a player should be flagged much more quickly instead of waiting for involvement.  They are hard to describe, but fall mostly into the gaining an advantage category.

    On another point, I think the former players/commentators are doing fans a big disservice by talking about the refereeing constantly.  Dont hear that in most other sports.....  Most of them don't know the Laws of the Game well enough to be talking about them.

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:45 p.m.

    Hi Bill, the late calls are indeed a direct consequence of the VAR - that is, rather than flag when the offside player has directly interfered (per the Law), the ARs are waiting to see if the play results in a goal or not. If there is a goal - the AR flags, and if there's somehow some doubt about the offside, then the VAR can review. It's just about understandable on very close offside goals, but not on the obvious offsides that are being allowed to run their course. The Italian goal described above being one of several examples. 

    If there is no goal - the AR also flags that when it's clear there's going to be no goal, rather than when the player interfered. This is just as infuriating, and leaves the crowd wondering what on earth the offence was and/or why the AR called it so late. There was an incident in Holland/Cameroon game where Cameroon were launching a counter-attack and the AR raised her flag for a Dutch offside that had happened several seconds previously. That is just nuts - an indirect free-kick for Cameroon was obviously of far less worth to them than the counter-attack. 

    I can only hope this is an experiment for the current tournament only, and that it will be quickly scrapped after July 7.

  3. James Madison, June 19, 2019 at 1:49 p.m.

    Bravo, Ian!  The Law provides for offside to be flagged once the player in an offside position has cheated, i.e., played the ball.  It is nuts to wait for play to continue on after that before flagging.

  4. Bill Riviere, June 20, 2019 at 8:31 a.m.

    Ian, I stand corrected and will watch more carefully in today's matches.  I too hope it will be scrapped soon.  It IS infuriating.

  5. Stephanie S, August 2, 2019 at 12:07 p.m.

    Lol, this article is so awful.

    It was a shoulder to shoulder challenge, and most of the pundits and actual referees agreed that the penalty kick shouldn't have been given. (Including a certain Hope Solo, who said it shouldn't have been given while commenting for the BBC.)

    But hey, what do they know? They've only been playing 'soccer' for most of their lives and know the rules of the game, so I guess we should completely dismiss their opinions when they say that Linari's challenge was valid and shouldn't have resulted in a penalty.

    Also, most everyone watching that game agree that Lucila Venegas did a pretty poor job and did everything they could to help the Brazilans get into the next round, including not whistling for an obvious foul on Galli in order to avoid giving Italy what could have been a crucial free kick.

    This article is a poorly written joke and the fact that 'Soccer America' wants people to actually pay to read these articles is pretty laughable.

    No wonder why you have to limit the amount of articles people read. It's because you guys wouldn't make any money otherwise, given people won't click on the links for the articles due to how poorly written they are.

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