A Referees Perspective on the Women’s World Cup (so far)

Between the changes in the Laws of the Game and the introduction of VAR, I think we’re having a peak into the future of the sport at the highest levels.

Ultimately, I think it’s good, but it will take some getting used to.

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Hi, my name is Ian and this is my first post here. I like to start every post with a disclaimer, so please bear with me. 

Disclaimer:

I am not a PRO or FIFA referee. In fact, I’m not even a “professional” referee. I primarily referee adult recreational and youth leagues and write software as my primary line of work. On average, I am involved in around 150 games a season, most of the U16 and over and as many major tournaments as I can find my way into. It is solely my intention to look at incidents and explain how I feel the IFAB Laws of the Game apply, were applied, or should have been applied.

If you’re interested in becoming a referee, please check this link for information on how to locate your state officiating group.

Now that we’ve taken that out of the way, let’s jump on into it…

The Laws of the Game are Pretty Okay

This post is mostly spurred on in response to Charles’ post about the Laws of the Game needing an Overhaul, but I’m not going to directly argue anything. I think Charles did a great job discussing some of the pitfalls of how application of the Laws of the Game have caused a degree of chaos throughout this years World Cup, but I’m willing to argue that they’re actually pretty dang good…it’s just different look than we’re used to seeing, especially in women’s soccer.

The Laws of the Game have been evolving at a rapid pace over the last couple years as has the IFAB. This year, they even went as far as to have a mobile app created to help give more people access to the Laws of the Game without needing a third party PDF reader nor the Google-fu required to know how to get the current Laws and not previous versions.

This World Cup is the first time we’re seeing the 2019-2020 Laws of the Game applied in an actual competition. I believe most of the teams had friendlies throughout the spring that the new Laws were used, but most of those did not have VAR or any of the other intricacies of the full tournament since they were just friendlies.

Between the changes in the Laws of the Game and the introduction of VAR, I think we’re having a peak into the future of the sport at the highest levels.

Ultimately, I think it’s good, but it will take some getting used to. 

I think to facilitate this conversation a bit, I’m going to try and generalize some of the comments and questions I’ve seen come across my Twitter feed and respond directly to them. 

“Why is the Assistant Referee holding their flag down on offside? They should be calling it immediately!”

Offside is an extremely complicated section of the Laws of the Game. In fact, it’s complicated enough that it actually has its own section. It’s complicated to the point that I’m extremely hesitant to even approach the subject, but I’m going to and I’m going to do it with some broad generalizations.

For a while now, the Laws have been working on ironing out a definition between an “offside position” and an “offside offense“. In between those two definitions, there are a list of situations that reset of offside position. This creates a degree of subjectivity, but tries to make concrete that there is a difference. A player can be in an offside position all day and, as long as they don’t become involved in play, never be called for it. That same player who is hanging out offside forever, can be completely saved by a defender making a bad play on a long ball.

At every level of the game, referees and assistant referees are being told to wait and make sure that an offside offense has occurred before putting the flag up. In all games, you’ll sometimes see an assistant have to make a 50 yard run just to make sure that the attacking player commits that offside offense and then have to make the long slog back to the half line to raise the flag. 

This is how it should be. If there’s a chance that someone other than the player in the offside position plays the ball, then you have to wait and see.

The introduction of VAR takes that one step further. 

Now, instead of relying on a single persons line of sight, the referee crew has 4 extra people with an Orwellian amount of cameras that can back up those calls. It’s possible to give an even longer wait and make absolutely sure that there was, in fact, an offside offense before you call off a goal or a potential goal scoring opportunity.

It’s allowed the ability to go from potentially calling a good goal back because of potential offside offense to allowing play to continue until it can be verified that there was an offside offense that needed to be dealt with.

I don’t have any hard numbers, but I’d be willing to be there are more goals that have been allowed because of that wait than there are goals that have been taken back.

“What are defenders supposed to do now? Play with their hands behind their back? This is ruining the game”

Well, you see, this is a fun one, because the Laws haven’t changed too much regarding handling. This years changes mostly just took away some of the vagueness that previous iterations had exposed. Instead of using words like “deliberate” or “intentional” (I wrote about those here), the Laws now try to better define where the hands should and shouldn’t be.

All that said, the couple hand balls that I’ve seen called have always been handling offenses. The difference is that now we have someone watching from another angle that can confidently make that call. 

Let’s have a little thought experiment:

You’re the assistant referee. There’s a quick counter attack starting at the half line and breaking down the nearside of the field. You have to watch three things:

  1. Offside
  2. In/Out of Bounds
  3. Potential Fouls

At the 18 yard box, a cross is fired in and takes a weird bounce. The attacking player is between you and the defender.

Can you make a judgement on why that ball took a weird bounce?

Probably not.

Okay, same scenario, but now you’re the center official. You’re trying to run on something like a diagonal line across the field to keep the bulk of play trapped between you and your assistant referee. Your run had to start from the other third of the field, so you’re going in top gear trying to get back into position ahead of or in line with the play. You see the cross and the ball go off at a weird angle, but you’re about 5 yards behind the defenders shoulder. 

Can you make a judgement call on that weird bounce?

Also, probably not.

In either situation, would you feel confident giving a penalty kick?

I would think no.

This is where VAR solves the problem. The referee still has ultimate responsibility over the match and can make those decisions if need be. However, they also have a barrage of cameras looking at all of the angles to figure out that weird bounce and a voice in their ear telling them whether or not it’s worth going back and having a second look.

If it’s not, don’t sweat it. If it is, go back and make it right.

I heard a saying this morning that went something along the lines of “if it’s a foul in the middle of the field, it’s a foul in the box” and that’s 100% true. The difference being is that one rarely leads to a goal and the other rarely doesn’t. In the interest of maintaining a match, the referee may have hesitation about giving that foul in the box because of that certain outcome.

VAR addresses that hesitation.

In Closing

There are a lot of intricacies in soccer. There always have been and there always will be. With or with out VAR.

At the World Cup though, it’s absolutely imperative that even with all those potential situations, it’s important that everything is as consistent as possible. While I, as a fan, may not agree with all of the calls being made I can easily see a clear line that is being held by the officiating crews. You can see consistency across games and across days that I can really appreciate.

It will take some getting used to at the large stage, but I think in the long run we’ll be better off for it.

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[…] the problems that VAR is exposing (though not precisely creating). Give it a read, and then read Ian’s response/elaboration which offers a very interesting alternative […]

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