Where VAR’s reign has now made redundant the directive to give ‘benefit of doubt’ to the forward in close offside calls, this penalty decision in favour of the holders’ appears to be an example of supporting attacking play in an even more generous way. Some cynics will mutter bitterly that this is yet another case of the mass pandering to USA that has been happening ever since the lead up to 1994 World Cup when FIFA’s secret proposal to increase the size of the goals to placate the points/goals hungry American people was made public in error. VAR themselves, without being questioned on the subject, have not admitted to the penalty award having anything to do with instructions from above, be that Trump, Putin or Qatar via Platini via Sarkozy.
Away from VAR (seeing as VAR is there, of course, to end all discussion and debate), it was nice on Saturday to see Cameroon midfielder Genevieve Ngo Mebeleck channelling her country's Italia 90 spirit when slicing a head high follow through onto the hand of Holland's blond midfielder, Jackie Groenen. Unlike in the opening game in Bologna 29 years ago, when Benjamin "Chopper" Massing was red carded for executing the final blow on Argentina's Claudio Caniggia, Mbeleck was only booked. Groenen escaped action despite having her crocked hand in an unnatural position. Frustratingly for Holland, they had to remain tight-lipped, fully aware that Nigel De Jong's studmarks are still embedded in the chest of Spain's Xavi Alonso, some nine years after the 2010 World Cup Final.
Wednesday night, and I got to experience my second full game of this tournament, England again (of course, duh!) against Japan. Already qualified, England looked to top the group at the expense of opponents who'd won this competition in 2007 but, with the men's team 2018 destiny in mind, Phil Neville made eight changes with two eyes on losing.
The wholesale changes included the return, to my delight, of centre back Millie Bright of Chelsea, recovering from a shoulder injury. I became a fan of Bright in the Euros, admiring her rugged style at the heart of the defence, a throwback stopper with a mix of the unpredictable, which is always interesting in someone who plays so close to her own goal. She bullied the Arsenal attack for over an hour in the 2017 Cup Final like the leader of the school playground, shirt too unbuttoned and tie too loose, snatching away bags and packed lunches from other kids while getting her minions to upturn pockets for cash. Then for the last 15-20 minutes at Wembley she completely lost it, her powers leaving her and playing like an extra attacker for Arsenal.
Bright's range of on-pitch schizophrenia was evident against the Japanese, first playing a raking long range pass early on to start an attack, while at other times unable to play any pass without an excess of force, conceding throw ins at will, combined with a tendency to let the ball go through her as if it was some poltergeist sphere in a film.
Luckily for Brighty and England, in a second half that the Lionesses struggled to stamp their authority on while a goal up, Japan lacked the killer conviction of Birmingham's Ellen White, who scored an instinctive second to go with her measured first, at a time when Japan were on top and really should have been level. Like in the Euros, when Jodie Taylor's goal instincts made the difference against technically superior opposition, the rotated forwards here have scored four between them in three games.
For me, the best change from the last game was Vicky Sparks for Jonathan Pearce in the commentary box, although it did appear, late in the game, that Pearce pulled rank. Selecting the England match to watch on iPlayer, I relaxed as it was Sparksy doing the talking, alongside Rachel Brown and Rachel Yankey, but with just a few minutes left I decided to turn to the other game in the group, Scotland-Argentina, where all the drama was happening in, as Sparks said it, "Saint Denise" (as an aside here, I believe the uncultured pronunciation of St Denis to be forgivable, as I am partial myself to a bit of "Ajax" with the J not silenced, and have always refused to go along with "Leenal" Messi, stubbornly sticking with "Lionel". While I can't quite bring myself to declare the x in Grand Prix, I have never forgotten the sight nor sound of the irate Arsenal fan on our club organised coach that was running late and getting lost on the way to the 1995 European Cup Winners Cup Final standing up and yelling at the driver "Oi! Parc Des Princes. Nah!", with all available s's used).
Anyway, I turned to the other game, where Scotland's 3-0 lead and apparent march to the knockout rounds as a 3rd place best loser was about to be halted by a last minute VAR penalty for Argentina, in some kind of macabre salute to 1978. The score was indeed, 3-2 as Argentina stepped up to take the last minute spot kick. But then, in a most anti-Scotland way, the goalkeeper, Lee Alexander, saved the pen and all was well again. There was, however, a twist in this already twisted tale. Already established as world leaders on events in the penalty area, the curtain-twitching VAR passed on the gossip that Alexander had strayed from her goal line before the kick had been taken. With the apparent new rule in place that goalkeepers must have at least one foot on the line before a penalty is struck, the untypically accepting Argentinians were suddenly allowed to re-take the kick. Alexander was first booked and then, on VAR's instruction, informed by the ref that if she repeated the act, would face a third penalty with one eye missing. Inevitably Argentina scored, even with a shot that went straight down the middle, and Scotland's lifelong international agoraphobia continued.
I turned back to England, rewound a bit, and Pearce was somehow commentating. Perhaps he'd been there all along, and my sense of denial had found super strengths. Maybe I should be more tolerant of him in these times of VAR. It's strange because two of my biggest annoyances in football, the moving goalkeeper to save a penalty (exception Dave Beasant at Wembley 1987, which I loved!) and the red card for a player conceding a penalty have now been eradicated, and yet FIFA have somehow found solutions that are more annoying. I mean, really, a booking for every player who gives away a penalty even if they clearly go for the ball or can't stop their hand rising up due to being human? What are we saying there - don't even bother to get the ball off a forward in the penalty area? Let him shoot? If not, there may be a penalty where your goalkeeper will be effectively tied to a post?
Maybe this is the secret alternative to increasing the size of the goals and guaranteeing more 'scores'. If Steph Houghton had mistimed her last-ditch tackles just fractionally in covering for Brighty, even Japan might have bagged one.