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Women's World Cup: Should men be refereeing in France?

Kanyu Kisbe
Kanyu Kisbe

(CNN)In a crowded penalty box with the score 0-0 in the first half, Svenja Huth is standing a few yards from her opponent’s goalkeeper as Germany prepares to take a corner.

Nigeria’s goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie gives the forward a little push, but the German still remains in the teenager’s eyeline as the ball comes flying into the box.

Eight green-shirted Nigerians are within six yards of goal. The defense should not be breached, but the ball hits the back of the net as Alexandra Popp is given the freedom to head home into the corner.

Cue the use of the video assistant referee (VAR) — as has happened on numerous occasions in almost every match at the Women’s World Cup — cue minutes of delay and cue questions being asked about the ability of referees at a tournament being described as the most important in the history of the women’s game.
Eventually, referee Yoshimi Yamashita deemed Popp’s header a worthy goal, giving Germany a lead it would extend over the 90 minutes, sealing a 3-0 win over the Super Falcons to march towards the quarterfinals.

Why has there been such a brouhaha about Huth positioning herself a few yards from Nigeria’s teenage goalkeeper? Though in an offside position, she was deemed not to be interfering with play, but the interpretation of the rules has not gone down well with many commentators.

“I genuinely cannot understand what’s going on in this tournament,” said Casey Stoney, Manchester United women’s manager, who was in Grenoble working as a pundit for the BBC.

It was not the first time in this tournament such a goal had been allowed to stand. Last week both Australia’s Sam Kerr and the US’ Carli Lloyd were deemed not to be interfering with play when clearly in offside positions, resulting crucial goals being given the green light.

“When Popp makes contact, Huth is in line with the keeper’s vision — that has to be offside. How can we not deem that offside?” added former England defender Stoney.

“I think it’s poor refereeing. I think it’s the referees’ interpretation. My interpretation is that’s offside.”

‘I’m questioning the ability of the officials’

Twenty-seven female referees and 48 female assistant referees are overseeing the matches in France.

Some referees have officiated in men’s top leagues, such as Bibiana Steinhaus (Bundesliga), Stephanie Frappart (Ligue 1, France), Claudia Umpierrez (Uruguay), Ether Staubli (second Swiss Men’s League), while assistant referee Chrysoula Kourompylia has officiated in Greece’s top men’s league.

Asked whether a referee at a Women’s World Cup should be the best person for the job regardless of sex, Stoney said: “I’ve said it for years as a player, where are these referees refereeing week in, week out under pressure having to make these decisions? Then we bring them and put them on the world’s biggest stage.

“(It needs to be) the best person for the job to give the players the opportunity to play the football and let us be talking about the football, not VAR, not referees’ decisions.”

Germany’s opening goal in Grenoble was not the first time VAR has been put to use in France, of course, and it is not the first time a decision had stirred up controversy in the competition.

Last week both Scotland and Nigeria’s goalkeepers were penalized by the VAR after they were adjudged to have had stepped off their line before the ball was kicked during a penalty. The new penalty rule introduced at the beginning of this month deems that a goalkeeper must have “at least part of one foot on/in line with the goal line when the kick is taken.”

Stoney was also critical of the use of VAR to decide whether Evelyn Nwabuoku’s foul on Germany’s Lina Magull was a penalty.

“The referee has to see this,” continued Stoney. “If you’re in a good position you see that’s a penalty you should not need to go to VAR for that to be given and waste even more time so I’m questioning the ability of the officials at this tournament.”

Also speaking on BBC Two, former England defender Laura Bassett said referees were using VAR as a “comfort blanket.”

After his team’s defeat, Nigeria coach Thomas Dennerby admitted the use of VAR had led to “some strange situations” during the match. “There was one time in the first half when no-one knows what they were watching for, players looking at each other, coaches looking at each other,” he told reporters.

‘Referees in line with expectation’

VAR was used at the 2018 men’s World Cup and is being applied in Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga but it has not been used in any women’s league in the world.

A FIFA spokesperson told CNN Sport that VAR had been used competitively in the “education phase” for referees officiating in France, such as the Alkass International Cup — an international Under-17 men’s tournament — and the Qatar Amateur League Cup.

In the four preparation seminars held before the Women’s World Cup in Abu Dhabi, Doha (twice) and Paris, practical training sessions with players and VAR simulator lessons were held on a daily basis.

“The education level convinced the FIFA Referees’ Committee to suggest in March 2019 to the FIFA Council the use of VAR at the FWWC 2019,” said the spokesperson.

Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA’s Referees’ Committee, said in a press conference on Friday that the “overall assessment” of referees was “in line with our expectations.”

“The FIFA Refereeing department and in particular Kari Seitz, our project leader at France 2019, have worked very hard with the match officials during recent years,” added Collina, regarded as the finest referee of his generation.

“Twenty-four different teams of referees from all six confederations were appointed in the group phase and they showed a high level of commitment and good qualities.”

The Italian went on to say: “I am very pleased that VAR worked very well so far. Our referees started only after the FIFA World Cup 2018 to practise with this tool and they went through an intensive preparation process to be ready for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.”

In England’s Women’s Super League, the standard of refereeing was put under the microscope last season as more attention than ever was placed on what has become a fully professional top division.

As of yet, there is not a full-time group of referees in the WSL. It was only in 2016 that the English Football Association introduced an assessment system to oversee the quality of refereeing in the women’s game.

Earlier this year Umpierrez, who has refereed in Uruguay’s men’s top league, told that the path for female referees was tough, noting that she would not be able to “put food on the table for my family in the country where I live” if refereeing was her only profession.

“I would love to see more women refereeing men’s football,” added Umpierrez, who is also a lawyer.

Women’s football has made major progress in recent years. Standards have improved, investment has increased, and more eyes are on it than ever. For many involved in the game, it seems clear that the refereeing has not moved quickly enough.

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Kanyu Kisbe

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