USWNT coach Jill Ellis calls out FIFA’s latest gender equity problem: VAR at the World Cup
Soccer's governing body still has not officially announce whether next year's women's World Cup will use the video replay technology that the men got this year.
A mostly meaningless U.S. women's soccer team game last Friday could end up resonating loudly as next year's World Cup draws nearer.
The game, a 3-0 American win, won't be remembered just because Christen Press scored on a night when she was honored for her recent 100th cap. Or because centerback Tierna Davidson, still an undergrad at Stanford, scored her first national team goal.
What stood out most was that three U.S. goals that could have counted were controversially taken off the board by referee Ekaterina Koroleva.
Had there been a video review booth as there was this summer at the men's World Cup — video assistant referees, to use the soccer term — all three finishes might have counted. Goal line technology, used at the 2015 Women's World Cup and elsewhere, would also have helped.
This game was just a friendly, so there was no assistance. That's understandable. But here's the real problem: After VAR's successful World Cup debut in Russia, FIFA hasn't said yet whether it will be used at next year's women's tournament in France.
Well, here's another big measuring stick, and it's right in front of FIFA's face. How can world soccer's governing body fairly claim to treat the game's best men's and women's players equally if there's no VAR for the women?
U.S. coach Jill Ellis is championing the cause, and rightly so.
"Let's all start a plan and a movement to make sure it is [used], because that would be the fair thing, right?" she said. "If it's deserving to be in the men's game, then it absolutely is deserving to be in our game. And my hope is that FIFA will oblige."
The evidence from last Friday's game makes a strong case.
First, and worst, was a penalty kick at the end of the first half. Press scored it, but Koroleva called encroachment on U.S. defender Crystal Dunn. Replays showed that a Chilean player next to Dunn entered the 18-yard box before Dunn did, and also stepped on Dunn's foot.
(The video below includes an intentional pause by ESPN's broadcast at the moment of the alleged encroachment.)
Compounding the problem, Koroleva — a NWSL veteran who will work at this year's under-17 women's World Cup — ignored the rule book by giving Chile a free kick instead of ordering a retake of the penalty.
"No idea what happened," Press told reporters after the game. "No time for explanations, and then we were off to halftime."
In the 56th minute, a shot by Delran native Carli Lloyd hit the crossbar and appeared to land over the line, or at least close to it.
Seconds later, Lloyd was denied again. As she was heading in a corner kick, Koroleva claimed Press was obstructing the goalkeeper, and Emily Sonnett was in a scrap with a Chilean player.
Ellis has raised the subject before. During a trip to the men's World Cup in Russia, she told reporters: "I can't see them not having it. It would be a little insulting if we're not afforded the same opportunity. There is too much at stake to not have it. Our game, our passion, our drive, our motivation is at the same level as the men."
After Friday's game, Ellis alluded to the current crop of female referees needing training on the VAR system. This is true, and FIFA uses female referees only at its women's tournaments. The longer FIFA waits to decide on VAR, the less time there is for that training to happen.
FIFA could also bring in male referees with VAR experience just for the booth next summer. Ellis said she'd be fine with that.
"I know there's training involved with VAR, but guess what — there's people trained and they just performed in a men's World Cup," she said. "So, they're available."
The Inquirer and Daily News asked FIFA's media relations department if a decision on VAR for next summer has been made yet. A spokesperson responded: "This will be communicated in due course." The spokesperson did confirm that goal-line technology will be used.
>> READ MORE: How to watch Tuesday's U.S.-Chile series finale
FIFA president Gianni Infantino had an opportunity to address the subject in public at a recent women's soccer conference in Rennes, France, one of next year's World Cup venues.
"FIFA is ready to bring women's football to the next level," he said. "Whether by increasing access for girls around the globe or by bringing the elite professional game to new heights, the sport will continuously be integrated into our activities across the organization."
He then went a step further, asserting: "I no longer want to refer to it as women's football, but simply as football."
But FIFA's lengthy report on the event offered few concrete steps to fulfill that wish. There was no mention of VAR or other major issues, such as the huge gap in prize money between men's and women's tournaments.
That was a missed opportunity. Every day the subjects aren't addressed is a missed opportunity, really. Ellis and the entire soccer world can only hope FIFA lives up to its promises, and soon.