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It appears that peak season of sports entertainment is going on with mesmerizing effect of World Cup cricket. The impact and appeal of sports is somewhere same all around the globe. For instance, recently in NBA Basketball contest (most premium basketball tournament of the world), a Canadian team (Toronto Raptors) became champion for the first time ever. The celebrations that took place may have not been ever seen in  this part of the world. Toronto and adjacent regions just erupted through nightlong celebrations with people and vehicles on the streets, followed by a grand parade of 20 million people with the winning team 3 days later  which literally brought un-declared holiday in the city.

Interestingly, while the people in Canada remain overwhelmed with their unique Basketball success, it is not certain how many of them are aware that their women’s football team is participating in  the top global contest-Women’s Football World Cup.  However, such lack of awareness regarding women sports seem to be a common tendency. For instance, in Bangladesh as well it is not sure that how many know that Women’s Football World Cup is going on, despite significant international success of women’s sports  (particularly in cricket and football) in recent times. If it was a Men’s World Cup, situation would have been just reverse. In various aspects (like: exposure, endorsement, funding, recognition) women’s sports have been facing bit discrimination all around the globe. This can be the topic of some detailed analysis.

Use of technology has now become an indispensable part of sports, at various dimensions in both on and off the field.  The outcomes of tech implementation in sports have undoubtedly brought amazing convenience and improvement for all concerned ones  in majority of the cases. Few exceptions often pop-up, such as the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) controversies in on-going women’s football world cup.

While use of  tech- based review to assist in field officials’ decision making has been a long practice in several sports like Cricket, in football its official usage is relative latest.   On March 3, 2018, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the top rule making body for global soccer, incorporated VAR into the laws of the game. IFAB quoted this measure as a “historic step for greater fairness in football.”The guiding philosophy of video review was “minimum interference-maximum benefit,” with aims to eliminate “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” with regards to goal calls, penalty decisions, decisions to hit players with red cards after a first infraction, and cases of mistaken identity, i.e. giving a penalty to the wrong player. That same month, FIFA voted to include VAR at last summer’s men’s World Cup in Russia. Top leagues around the world were already experimenting with the system, so many of the men’s players were familiar with VAR going into their tournament. VAR was generally considered a success for the men: according to FIFA, VAR resulted in a 99.3% success rate of correct calls (without VAR, 95% of calls would have been right).

Things were pretty fine then. However on  1 June 2019, just six days before the start of the Women’s World Cup — IFAB instituted a new rule mandating that goalkeepers must have at least part of one foot on the goal line, instead of both feet, when an opponent takes a penalty shot. Keepers can no longer stand behind the line. In theory, the new rule offers more flexibility for keepers. But introducing it so close to the World Cup without sufficient prior engagement has caused several controversies already in the tournament. Let us have some look at few.

In the Scotland- Argentina match on 19 June ,the Scots needed to beat Argentina on June 19 to have any hope of advancing to the Round of 16. Scotland appeared to secure a 3-2 victory when goalkeeper Lee Alexander saved a penalty shot from Florencia Bonsegundo of Argentina in stoppage time. But VAR determined that Alexander moved a few inches off her line before the shot was taken. Bonsegundo scored on the retake, tying the game and sending Scotland home.

Critics — and not just Scotland fans — argued that, in this case, VAR wasn’t correcting a “clear and obvious error” or “serious missed incident.” Keepers have been edging off their lines on penalty shots for years; VAR was starting to nitpick, and at the Women’s World Cup no less. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, though a biased observer, captured the sentiments of many when she wrote on Twitter: “I still don’t fully understand how it works, but I understand enough to know that I hate VAR!” The English Premier League will introduce VAR for the first time this upcoming season. But video replay will not be used to scrutinize goalkeeper footwork and take away penalty kick saves.

VAR isn’t just causing headaches on penalty kicks. In  France-Brazil quarterfinal on 23 June, France seemed to go up 1-0 before VAR intervened. Fox rules analyst Christina Unkel made the reasonable point that Brazil goalkeeper Barbara did not have possession of the ball when France’s Valérie Gauvin collided with her on a cross, sending the ball into the net. The refs ruled it a goal on the field. After a more than four minute delay, the call was reversed, seemingly without clear evidence. France survived, pulling out a 2-1 victory with a goal in extra time .

The Americans have benefited from questionable VAR calls. Against Sweden, Carli Lloyd appeared to be offside on a cross before Tobin Health deflected a ball off Sweden’s Jonna Andersoon, resulting in an own-goal that put the Americans up 2-0 in the second half. After the refs took a look, the goal was allowed to stand. In the U.S.-Spain round of 16 game on 24 June, Spain’s Maria Leon was whistled for tripping Rose Lavelle in the box, giving the U.S. a penalty kick late in a 1-1 game. The play didn’t look much like an infraction, but VAR gave the U.S. another break. The call held upon review, and Megan Rapinoe converted her second penalty shot of the game to give the Americans a 2-1 lead it would not relinquish.

Besides praying that some VAR controversy doesn’t determine who wins the Women’s World Cup final? VAR calls should be determined in a more timely, and consistent, fashion for the rest of the tournament. But protests will likely continue. After two VAR calls went against Cameroon in its 3-0 Round of 16 loss to England, the players were notably upset. Cameroon coach Alain Djeumfa called the decisions a “miscarriage of justice.”

When it comes to the treatment of the world’s best soccer players, a disturbing pattern has formed. VAR for men was deemed a success, but the players had some time to get acclimated to it. The women did not, and had to deal with a rule change for goalkeepers that complicated the whole thing just days before the start of the tournament. As the Women’s Football World Cup proceeds to the end, it will be interesting to observe any further impact of VAR in the next few  games.

(to be continued)

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