The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group D: Scotland Denied
England, Japan, Argentina, Scotland
The Scotland men’s national team has qualified for the World Cup finals on eight separate occasions, but has never got beyond the group stages of the competition. The Scotland women’s team qualifies for the Women’s World Cup finals once, and… well, it’d be a bit mischievous to suggest that there must be something in the water, but the comparisons are inevitable following an extraordinary evening of football in Paris during which Scotland started well and seemed to have at least given themselves a chance of getting through to the next stage of the competition before being undone by a combination of their own slovenliness and an application of VAR so absurd that even its staunchest defenders can surely only wonder whether it should be abandoned before it breaks football altogether.
Argentina started brightly and hit the crossbar after fourteen minutes, when a far post header from Marianna Larroquette hit the crossbar and bounced to safety. Scotland, however, quickly regained their poise and took the lead two minutes later when an Erin Cuthbert run down the left-hand channel ended in a shot that brought a decent save from Vanina Correa, only for Kim Little to scramble the ball over the line from close range. The calculators came out. What did Scotland need? The truth of the matter is that it was a fool’s errand to even start looking, all the more so after Jen Beattie doubled Scotland’s lead four minutes into the second half.
Scotland continued to chase goals and, with a little over twenty minutes to play, Correa could only push a high, looping header from Leanne Crichton onto the post, only for Erin Cuthbert to hook in the rebound from close range. Every goal made the jobs of both Cameroon and Chile that much more difficult. But Scotland gonna Scotland, though, and two goals for Argentina from substitute Milagros Menendez and Florencia Bonsegundo set up an unnecessarily tense last ten minutes from a position in which Scotland had just a few minutes earlier appeared unassailable. And then, with four minutes left to play, Sophie Howard, who had come on just seconds earlier as a substitute, tripped Cometti and Argentina had a penalty kick.
It took three minutes for the Robo-Ref – apparently fitted for this tournament with Clive Thomas edition firmware, which is a surprising choice – to make that decision. Up stepped Florencia Bonsegundo to take the penalty, only for the Scotland goalkeeper Lee Alexander to save it, which was all that the pernickity, officious system then called everything back again because Alexander had taken half a step off her line as the ball was kicked. Bonsegundo stepped up again, and with Alexander seemingly feeling as though the referee told her that she wasn’t to dive, this time scored to knock Scotland out of the tournament. With Robo-Ref’s second decision having also swallowed up most of the stoppage-time signalled at the end of the match, the whistle blew for full-time not long after kick-off with both teams loking utterly bemused at what they’d just witnessed and were still witnessing. It was a decision that benefited neither team. Both needed a win to stay in the tournament, and neither benefited from the fact that basically no open play took place between the eighty-sixth and ninety-fourth minutes of the match.
With little to play for but maintaining a winning momentum and topping the group, there was a pleasingly light air about England’s match against Japan this evening. Stomach-knotting nerves and bouts of existential anguish could wait for another day. This was an occasion for letting the hair down and playing with a little more freedom than they’d managed in their previous two matches. After a slightly stodgy opening period, England took the lead after fourteen minutes thanks to a smart from finish from Ellen White following a sumptuously defence-splitting through-ball from Georgia Stanway. There followed a period during which England completely dominated, and it required a string of excellent saves from the Japanese goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita, including a vicious swerving shot from just outside the penalty area from Stanway which swerved viciously and required some sharp readjustment before Yamashita could beat the ball to safety.
As the second half progressed, though, England’s performance deteriorated as Japan pushed forward in pursuit of a way back into the match. For the second time in three matches, England became a little sloppy and careless whilst Japan, as stylish in their build-up play as any team in the world, pushed closer to the England goal without applying the finish that they needed. With six minutes to play, White picked up a pass from Carney and scored from just inside the penalty area, wrapping up the three points for England and securing their first ever full house in the group stages of the Women’s World Cup. They haven’t set the tournament alight quite yet, but they’ve been defensively solid and efficient in their first three matches. Germany and France are the only other teams so far to have picked up a maximum nine points from their first three matches. That’s the company that England want to be keeping.
But back to the VAR, again. I can only ask the same question again as I have previously: is this what FIFA wants elite level football to look like? I was a convert to the usage of the VAR during the World Cup held in France last year, and whilst its use in the Champions League was frequently controversial, there seemed little feeling of outrage over any of the decisions awarded in that particular competition. The technology is barely a couple of years old. It hasn’t changed. What has changed has been the way in which it’s been applied, an increasingly intrusive presence after a relatively low key start – for many of us in countries in which hadn’t been introduced – a year earlier. We could even be persuaded that this was a deliberately light touch application in order to game public opinion. Quite why anyone would want to go any further with it is a mystery.
So, let’s be clear on this, then. If you’re a defender, you basically need to keep your hands by your sides, perhaps behind your backs, and it’s probably for the best that you don’t attempt to tackle, as VAR’s remit has clearly been expanded way beyond correcting “clear and obvious errors” made by referees and any contact with an opposing player will likely come in for scrutiny and will likely result in a penalty kick being awarded against you. If you’re a goalkeeper, you will keep at least one foot on the goal line, making it exceptionally difficult to dive in any direction with any degree of agility. And if all of this happens in the last minute of a last round of group matches with a place in the next round at stake for both teams, there’s no requirement to add on any time to cover that wasted by these outbreaks of officiousness. We know that all of these decisions are technically “correct.” This current implementation of the VAR, however, is strangling the life out of the game, particularly in conjunction with a current interpretation of the laws of the game which now seems only concerned with the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the game.
All of this will be little consolation to Scotland this morning, though. Narrow defeat stings at the best of times, but losing under these circumstances hurts in a whole other way. In amongst the palaver surrounding the interjection of the VAR, that they were leading three-nil with less than twenty minutes left to play is half-forgotten that, whilst one of the goals had a strong hint of travesty about it, the other two that they conceded were results of some lackadaisical defending. But when that particular fog has lifted, they can take considerable heart from a gutsy performance in this tournament. That it took the worst handball call (amongst strong opposition) of the finals to torpedo them against England in their opening match and the convoluted sequence of events that took place last night to do the same against Argentina might say something about the team’s inexperience, but it also says something about the its character that it took these decisions to fell them. That professional football, like so much else in the world, is so puffed up with its own sense of self-importance that it can no longer tolerate any degree of nuance or grey area can hardly be laid at their door. FIFA, it is abundantly clear, are perfectly capable of breaking professional football without any outside assistance.