The 2019 Women’s World Cup: England vs Cameroon
England 3-0 Cameroon
Well, there’s a lot to unpack here, but where do we start? This afternoon in Valenciennes England beat Cameroon this afternoon to progress to the quarter-finals of the 2019 Women’s Cup, but that rather feels like the least important matter to transpire from a match which has damaged the reputation of women’s football, and in more ways than one. The story of this match is ultimately a story of several stories intersecting. It would be a lie to say that they’ve “bubbling under the surface” for the last week and a half, because they are broadly extensions of stories that have been following both men’s and women’s football around for much of the last couple of years or so.
Something has gone very wrong with the usage of Video Assistant Refereeing over the course of the last twelve months or so. It has passed from being used to adjudicate “clear and obvious errors” (the original remit, which is starting to feel was little more than a sop to a public that was already suspicious of it) to being used to in the manner of a school snitch, catching out players who may be falling foul of the letter of the laws of the game but could only be considered to be falling foul of the spirit of those laws by the most needlessly Pooterish of people.
In addition to this, the application of VAR can only be really considered through the prism of the rules that it is meant to enforce. What is notable about the current laws regarding both handball and offside is just how far removed they are from what we might assume FIFA would want to achieve. Offside should be to stop people from goal-hanging, not to penalise players whose big toes have strayed half an inch before the last defender’s foot. Handball should be about gaining an advantage through cheating, not any single example of a ball grazing against a player’s arm.
We don’t know whether the current laws and their interpretation were set up with VAR specifically in mind. If they were, those who did are either incompetent or just don’t like football very much. Either way, the laws of the game urgently need to be updated, because the fact of the matter is that VAR is not going to go away. Too many poweful interests have too much at stake in it. The vast majority of us would like to see it removed altogether, but it is probably wishful thinking to believe that it is going to go anywhere. There are, therefore, several different roadmaps following the end of this tournament:
- Change the laws of the game to allow for a little more “give” in these laws. (Note that it is not a condition of saying this to have to come up with failsafe replacements oneself.)
- Reduce the scope for VAR to be used – remove the ability to replay back in slow motion, remove the multitude of different angles, put the principle of “clear and obvious errors” back at the heart of the process, etc.
- Ignore the increasingly widespread criticism and hope that it dies away. (Likely FIFA’s preferred option.)
- Chuck it in the sea. (As mentioned above, the least likely option.)
But on to the game itself.
Though we might not have realised it at the time, the mood for the remainder of the match was set after four minutes when Cameroon’s Yvonne Leuko elbowed Nikita Parris in the face and received a yellow card for her troubles. It was a reflection on the quality of refereeing (or lack thereof) that the referee, Qin Liang, presumably saw what happened but made a decision against the rules without even referring to this supposedly infallible video assistant. Ten minutes later, Augustine Ejangue spat at Toni Duggan after conceding an indirect after goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom picked up her backpass. The incident was either completely missed or, more likely but incomprehensibly, disregarded by the referee. After a lengthy delay, the ball was touched to Steph Houghton, who scored with a low shot which might have been blocked had the goalkeeper’s fingertips not touched the ball wide of the defenders on the line.
In the third minutes of stoppage-time at the end of the half, though, all hell broke loose. With an almighty hole in the middle of the Cameroon defence, Lucy Bronze put Ellen White through and wide slid the ball past the goalkeeper to double England’s lead, only for play to be called back for offside. However, the VAR was pulled out yet again, and this time it was found that White was half yard onside and the goal was given. This time, however, the Cameroon players weren’t having it, surrounding the referee and shouting at her whilst gesticulating at the large screens inside the stadium. The whole farcical exhibition lasted for about three minutes before play restarted, with the referee having lost any remaining control that she might have had over the match.
It didn’t take long for it all to kick off again at the start of the second half. Four minutes in, a poor clearance by the England goalkeeper Karen Bardlsey resulted in Ajara Nchout scoring for Cameroon, but again the goal was referred to the VAR and again the decision went against Cameroon. And again, correctly. In the aftermath of this, Nchout was seen to be in tears on the pitch whilst a section of the crowd, showing depressingly similar levels of emotional intelligence to what we often see in the men’s game, started booing the England team when they were in possession.
Quite why these correctly awarded decisions – and that really is the only consolation of VAR, that the decisions finally arrived at are usually correct (though not, as Scotland will remind anybody listening, always) – were their fault is just about anybody’s guess, but it pretty quickly became an irrelevance regardless. Thirteen minutes into the second half, a smartly-worked corner move ended in Alex Greenwood scoring a third for England, and the game was over as a contest. Deep into stoppage-time, though, Takounda smacked her foot into Houghton’s ankle in a manner which might easily have broken it. Another yellow card. Despite this benevolent refereeing, the Cameroon players were back up in the referee’s face again.
So, is VAR racist, then? Well to reiterate, the decisions ultimately reached which benefitted England this afternoon were all, under the letter of the current law, correct and Cameroon might have had two or perhaps three players sent off had correct decisions been made over the elbow, the spitting, or that late late tackle), but that’s not quite the full story. Inequality is rampant in professional football and always has been, and the gap between the haves and have nots of women’s football may even be greater than in the men’s game. It might be argued that VAR – and especially the way in which it’s being implemented – entrenches hierarchies. When a lower-ranked team causes an upset, it often does so by nicking a goal on the break and then defending for its life. They’re also more likely to tackle clumsily, or to not be equipped to take advantage of the very fine margins that the current (and stupid) interpretation of the offiside rule require.
And these inequalities in international football likely do incorporate a racial element, just as they do in society in a broader sense. Countries with majority black populations tend to be poorer than white ones, after all. But what we’re talking about here is far broader than VAR, and getting rid of VAR is going to do very, very little to fix those inequalities. FIFA needs to redistribute its money better. It needs to funnel more money into women’s football and it needs to feed more money into developing nations such as Cameroon. But this doesn’t mitigate the behaviour of the Cameroon players and we don’t have different rules during matches according to the colour of a player’s skin or how wealthy the background of his team or country may or may not be.
Frustration on the part of the Cameroon players, whether at specific decisions going against them or at a wider sense of injustice, that the odds are perpetually stacked against them, is entirely understandable. What isn’t acceptable is to allow any team to hold itself to a lower standard of behaviour on the pitch than anybody else, and much of their behaviour this afternoon fell considerably short of what we should expect of any team, under any circumstances. England didn’t play particularly well, and there’s every chance that Phil Neville will be quietly pleased that the furore might have glossed over this. Ultimately, England deserved the win, got the win, and will be glad to not be playing Cameroon again in the near future.