My Thoughts on the Refereeing – Women’s World Cup Group Stage

Image courtesy of Toronto Sun

With the group stages of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the books, over two-thirds of the matches have been played – only the 16 elimination games remain, beginning with a pair of round-of-16 ties on Saturday. With our first rest day upon us, it seems as good a time as ever to go through the 36 group-stage matches and pick out some of the more interesting referee-related tidbits from the first few weeks of action.

PKs, part I: why can’t players defend?

A fair warning, before I dive into things: there will be a lot of discussion about penalty kicks. A lot.

One thing that stuck out to me in the group stages in particular was the sheer number of penalties called. In total, referees pointed to the spot 18 times over the first 36 matches, which is not an insignificant number. Seven of these PKs—nearly half—were only given after VAR intervention, which I will get into in more detail a bit later on.

What was particularly head-scratching about many of these penalty calls was the way defenders seemed to just completely forget how to defend as soon as the play was in their own penalty area. Now, I don’t have the numbers for this, but there seemed to be barely any shooting-range free kicks over the course of many matches I watched – defenders were generally good at not giving away cheap free kicks.

Conversely, the number of utterly stupid and needless tackles seemed to shoot up when defenders were 18 yards or less from their own goal. Off the top of my head, there were two completely reckless follow-throughs on slide tackles in the Spain-South Africa and France-Norway matches, two entirely avoidable sliding challenges in the England-Argentina and Korea-Norway games, and an absolutely pointless body-check in Italy vs Brazil.

And, of course, this is to say nothing of the handball offences, one of which generated so much controversy that I already wrote an article on it.

Defending tends to get a bit tighter and less risky as the matches become more important, so I would expect the rate of PKs to go down as the tournament enters into the latter stages. Still, the group phase was rather eye-opening as far as the clumsy state of the defending is concerned.

PKs, part II: goalkeepers and their feet

Of all the football rules found in past years’ editions of the IFAB Laws of the Game, there’s one little point in particular that’s never really been enforced at a professional level.

Well, except for this one time.

In what was honestly one of the most exciting passages of play the MLS has ever seen, the DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid gets called not once, but twice (and rightly so) for stepping off his goal line before the penalty is struck. At this time, there was no automatic yellow card for goalkeeper encroachment, so Hamid didn’t get booked for either of the offences, although he did pick up a card for dissent anyways.

Since then, the act of a goalkeeper stepping off their goal line on a penalty kick has been so rarely applied that I cannot think of a single other incident where it’s happened.

However, the new 2019/20 iteration of the Laws of the Game made some changes to that particular sub-point of law 14, which evidently made it clear that FIFA recognized there was a problem with the rule and the inconsistency with which it was actually being enforced.

Since the new laws—which now say that a GK may have one foot off the line when a penalty is struck—have come into effect, it’s clear that FIFA has issued a directive to its referees to enforce this very strictly. With it being consistently called in both the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup as well as this Women’s World Cup, there finally seems to be a bit of consistency at play, which can only be a good thing.

Interestingly, FIFA have decided to scrap the automatic yellow card during penalty shootouts at the Women’s World Cup, something that was just announced today. There’s been a lot of uproar over the fact that FIFA are just making new rules as they go, but I don’t really see the big deal – imagine the farce, for example, if a goalkeeper already on a yellow card steps off her line in a shootout of the World Cup Final. I think this is a good move by FIFA, and something that will no doubt be discussed much more by the IFAB after the tournament.

Three goalkeepers were penalized for foot infractions so far in the group stages – Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie against France, Jamaica’s Sydney Schneider against Italy, and Scotland’s Lee Alexander against Argentina. The latter incident drew a lot of criticism, even though one replay angle in particular definitely shows that the correct call was made.

I am a huge fan of this new interpretation of the rule. I distinctly remember watching the Croatia-Denmark penalty shootout at the men’s World Cup last year and remarking how both goalkeepers, Subašić and Schmeichel, respectively, were so far off their lines for virtually every single penalty that there may as well not have been a rule on it in the first place.

That said, I do have one caveat: the precedent has been set that it’s something that will now be monitored very tightly (especially by VARs, when they are present), so it has to stay that way. Consistency is huge when it comes to situations like these, so the challenge will be for referees across all leagues and competitions to interpret them uniformly every time.

PKs, part III: assistant referee positioning

This one is for the eagle-eyed viewers out there, and not so much an issue or a controversy as just something interesting to notice.

This new position for ARs to take up kind of stands in opposition to the new crackdown on goalkeeper infringements, and I did a double take the first time I noticed it, which was in the France-Norway game.

I asked the IFAB for clarification, and this is what they had to say:

Personally, I’ve never understood the normal AR position on a penalty kick. The number of times I’ve awkwardly had to race back to the sideline after a missed penalty is pretty high, and with goalkeeper infringements never really being punished, I just never saw the point of having to go to a closer position.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be the standard for non-VAR matches. However, with VAR handling the encroachment pretty consistently, I like that ARs can now remain on the corner flag. It’ll be interesting to see if this becomes normal practice for professional leagues who utilize VAR.

VAR-watch

There’s been a lot of discussion about VAR both before and during this World Cup, so I’ll try to not ramble on about it for too long. My stance on VAR so far is threefold:

  • It’s created consistency across matches
  • Referees have relied on it far more than they should need to
  • Overall, it’s been a net positive

Consistency is huge in refereeing, as I’ve already said. If a referee can enforce the laws in the same way across the 90 minutes of one match, and more generally, if multiple referees can do this across multiple matches in a season or tournament, then players have far less reason to take issue with their decisions.

VAR is wonderful when it comes to the factual decisions: offsides, goalkeepers on or off their lines, whether a foul was inside the penalty area or not. These rules are being applied the same way across all matches, which (unless you’re Scottish) doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.

That being said, my opinion is that referees are being more cautious as a result of VAR, particularly when it comes to fouls in the penalty area. As I said, 7 out of 18 penalties have only been given after a VAR check, which is far too many in my opinion. There have been some unbelievably obvious fouls that really should have been called without needing a video replay – Scotland’s handball against England and Spain’s second penalty against South Africa, for example.

We have to remember that carrying out an on-field VAR check means that a referee has been judged to have made a ‘clear and obvious error’ in a potentially match-changing incident. The best referees, as far as I’m concerned, are the ones who don’t need to use VAR to make the correct call. Throughout this year’s four Champions League semifinals as well as the final, there were a grand total of ZERO video reviews. That’s the standard of on-field officiating that should be aspired to. Idealistic, perhaps, but I feel strongly that VAR has been used less as a safety net and more as a primary resource in the World Cup so far.

All in all, though, VAR has been a net positive throughout the tournament. The most important thing as far as the game is concerned is to end up with the correct decision, no matter how you get there. So far, there have been no major offside controversies, no major red card controversies, and only one penalty controversy to speak of. Throughout 36 matches, that’s not too bad at all.

The referees: winners and losers

Claudia Umpierrez (centre) before the World Cup’s opening match | Image courtesy of SportStar

Winner: Claudia Umpierrez (Uruguay)

Umpierrez was selected to take charge of the tournament’s opening match, which is always a positive sign from FIFA, and then had two fourth official assignments before being back in the centre for Japan vs England, a fairly high-profile encounter. She’s been really solid throughout both and has not had a single VAR check, which is another plus. Interestingly, she hasn’t dished out a single card in her two matches either. At the moment, she’s currently a clear candidate for the July 7 final.

Winner: Anastasia Pustovoitova (Russia)

Pustovoitova, who refereed the Women’s Champions League Final back in May, has also taken charge of two matches so far and performed well in both of them. First, she handled Nigeria vs South Korea excellently, and was rewarded with one of the ties of the group stage, Sweden vs USA. She had another solid match there, and, among the UEFA referees at the tournament, she’s been the standout performer so far.

Winner: Marie-Soleil Beaudoin (Canada)

Beaudoin has taken advantage of Carol Anne Chenard’s absence at this World Cup, handling both Germany vs China and then South Korea vs Norway with aplomb. Unlike many other referees, she has not been scared to award penalty kicks without the VAR’s help – she gave Norway two of them in the latter match, both correct decisions. She’s also been given what is easily the most glamorous round of 16 clash—France vs Brazil—as a reward for her job very well done so far.

Loser: Anna-Marie Keighley (New Zealand)

Keighley just hasn’t shown enough courage to make big decisions in her two matches, with two quite clear penalties going uncalled on the field before being overturned by VAR checks. First, there was a mistimed tackle on an Italian forward in the Italy-Jamaica match, followed by a quite blatant reckless challenge by the Thai goalkeeper in their match against Chile. Overall, this shaky decision-making could very well work against her hopes of taking a knockout-stage fixture.

Loser: Ri Hyang-ok (North Korea)

Ri is an extremely authoritative referee, which served her okay in a fairly tame Canada-Cameroon clash but worked against her in one of the tournament’s most dramatic matches so far, Scotland’s tilt with Argentina. She originally dismissed an Argentinean PK appeal late in the match, before going to VAR and overturning it. Then, she played far less stoppage time than was needed to cover the delay that took place during the extended video checks – and when all was said and done, Scotland were eliminated.

Loser: Esther Staubli (Switzerland)

Staubli hasn’t been seen as a centre referee since her first match, and after making a stoppage-time error in Brazil’s clash with Australia, her knockout stage prospects don’t look too great. She appeared to talk her way out of having to do what would have been a third on-field review in the match when a Brazilian player was wrestled to the ground in the penalty area, an incident which looked clear and obvious to most but went unpunished after Staubli appeared to adamantly say, “Not for me,” in conversation with the VAR.

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