The Voices in Her Head

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[Revised*]

On March 15 of this year, FIFA approved the use of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in the Women’s World Cup. This is, in general, a good thing. VAR was used in last year’s men’s tournament without too much trouble. But the implementation of VAR in the Women’s World Cup has not gone very well at all. Today, Pierluigi Collina, the chair of FIFA’s referee committee, hosted a press conference and reviewed this tournament’s refereeing statistics and fielded questions — if you are down for 90 minutes of VAR spin, you can watch it here. The questions (which start about an hour in) were pretty hard hitting and the panel dodged them – one gentleman, for example, asked why Asian, African and South American teams have seemed more vulnerable to VAR decisions than European teams. He was told to read the rulebook.

Like many people watching this tournament, I’ve been wondering why the VAR use has been so particularly awful. Luis Paez-Pumar, writing for Deadspin, provides an excellent overview of the misery caused by the combination of the last minute institution of new rules of the game, the amplified power of VARs, and FIFA’s general contempt for the women’s game. He writes:

FIFA listened (belatedly) to calls for VAR at the World Cup, and it gave its unprepared referees the unwanted responsibility of properly implementing new rules that were only made official six days before the first game of the tournament. These changes were made under the name of equality, but it’s hard to imagine FIFA implementing similarly dramatic changes so haphazardly coming into a men’s World Cup. FIFA set its referees up to fail at the Women’s World Cup, all in the name of technology no one fully understands and rules no one particularly likes

I have something to add to the running list of shitty FIFA things informing this situation. Every one of the 15 people initially listed as working this tournament as a Video Assistant Referee is a man and not one (as far as I can tell) has a history of working in women’s football.* (By the way, the latter may mean they don’t have much of a history of working with women, in general.)

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Before I dive in, let me be clear: I do not think that having women leading the VAR Room will necessarily fix things. What I do think is this: the fact that the VAR list did not include women or people with experience refereeing women’s matches is symptomatic of the sexist rot which plagues FIFA’s involvement in the women’s game. [Women are working in the VAR room as Assistant Video Assistant Referees: one woman per match team.]

There is a reason why those fifteen VARs are men and why they do not have experience officiating at the highest levels of the women’s game. This is the outcome of FIFA’s practice of maintaining separate referee lists for men’s and women’s football. It was not always this way. In a 2002 post on FIFA’s website, Sonia Denoncourt (the former head of referee development) explains:

In 1994, FIFA took the unprecedented step of appointing the first four female assistant referees in the world. These women were included in the universal (read: male) list. In 1995, FIFA followed this up with significant changes for women referees and assistant referees, by introducing FIFA’s first ever list of women referees just in time for the Women’s World Cup in Sweden.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for the conversations in which FIFA administrators debated the benefits of a universal (meaning all-gender) referee list! Denoncourt’s brief article suggests that the misogyny of national federations was so intense that it was hard to imagine working in any of its contexts and getting an education in much beyond one’s capacity to endure harassment. More than implied in this article was the necessity of this separation in order to create a space in which women might have a chance to gain experience and to do so in a minimally sexist environment. (The article also expresses some really quite regressive views about the differences between men and women athletes; it’s worth reading as a document of what I imagine was one of the more forward thinking perspectives on the sport within FIFA structures.)

There are manifold problems, however, with the total segregation of referee pools.

There is a tendency, in sports, to treat girls and women’s sports as a training ground for inexperienced referees. (In the United States, Civil Rights law actually makes it illegal to do that in most contexts.) This expresses a broad devaluation, in sports and in the world, of women’s capacity to lead and govern men.

Furthermore, women’s sports are held at a sub-professional level by governing institutions run by men whose misogyny is often worse than that one finds amongst the general population. So, if you only allow women to referee women, and those women work in countries with an amateur-level game at home, those women will hit a glass ceiling hard and early. Women’s leagues, furthermore, currently do not use VAR. The only referees with experience working with VAR are those working in the men’s game and in those leagues using it, VAR is still new.

Women refereeing this World Cup work in men’s leagues, however, and a few work as referees in leagues using VAR. To name just two — Bibiana Steinhaus (Bundesligue), Stéphanie Frappert (Ligue 1). Just a few months ago, in fact, the FFF assigned Frappert as the center referee to a Ligue 1 match. The federation explained that they did so in response to a request from FIFA to support her exposure to top-flight matches in advance of the World Cup. Frappert, one learns with just a little more googling, has experience working for Ligue 1 as a Video Assistant Referee. She worked 8 matches this past season. I point this out to emphasize the fact that it is not the case that there are no women with VAR experience. There have not been, until this World Cup, women with experience working in the VAR room at a World Cup — which is the result of FIFA’s unwillingness to use the men’s game to support the development of women referees.

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FIFA’s request of the FFF strikes me as interesting — it’s a sign that the people governing refereeing know that they have a pipeline problem, as is the language of its press release describing an all-male VAR team (“VAR will be part of a remarkable project as it will unite women and men referees in what we are certain will be a successful tournament.”) It’s also a sign that FIFA treats the Women’s World Cup as an afterthought. There should have been no question about whether VAR would be used in the Women’s World Cup, and women should have gone to Russia specifically to train with it last year. There is no reason why the men’s game can’t be a platform for the development of the women’s game.

Referee development is a big part of FIFA’s discourse about the World Cup’s function as an instrument for lifting the level of the game globally. From what I can see from my admittedly limited research on this issue, it looks as if in the 1990s and 2000s, FIFA punted the project of developing women referees because FIFA executives were not interested in taking on the misogyny of its national federations. The gender segregated list was one way of addressing that as it forced national federations to start working with women at least in women’s games; but it also tied the project of the development of women referees to the same federations that inhibit the development of the women’s game.

Basically, with that gender segregated list, FIFA extends the women’s game a hand while keeping its boot on her neck.

If FIFA is actually committed to supporting the development of women referees, it should have a universal referee list and work towards gender parity at every level of the sport. The minute FIFA started working with VAR, it should have included women referees in that process.

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In the press conference today, officials could not deny that governance of the match has been more aggressive that it was in 2018. Statistically, however, it is not out of line with the recent U20 tournament, a fact that raises more questions than it answers. In this tournament, if feels like VARs have micromanaged the referee, interfered with the match’s pacing and turned the game in a direction that seems unfair.

Perhaps this is just a sign of the times — so much of what passes as technical advancement makes the quality of our lives so very worse. VAR has made it harder to trust the technical apparatus — it amplifies the lack of trust we have in FIFA itself.

Returning to gender: in the imbalanced optics of this situation we have a great expression of one of the very biggest contradictions shaping FIFA’s governance of the women’s game.

About fifteen years ago, in rejecting a woman player’s request to transfer to a second-tier men’s club in Mexico, FIFA explained that “there must be a clear separation of between men’s and women’s football.” They’ve stuck to that line ever since.

But the truth is that the separation of women’s football from men’s football is not at all clear. If that were true, women would have total executive authority over the game. They would determine its funding levels, they would make decisions regarding player salaries and support, they would negotiate endorsements. They would govern the game’s rules — they would make the decisions about things like hijab, for example and set guidelines regarding who is eligible to play on a women’s team. If we take the players themselves as the center of the women’s game, we needn’t step very far at all from that center to find the game being run by men.

That situation is visualized in this tournament by images of (mostly) men sitting in what looks like a war room as they supervise a game played and refereed by women.

The contradictions in FIFA’s logic regarding the necessity for absolute clarity in the difference between the men’s and women’s game is made manifest in the fact the men in that VAR room do not work in women’s football. If the differences are so clear, so important to the sport’s integrity then how are those men actually qualified to do this supervisory work? And if they can do that work, then why couldn’t women work as VARs in Russia? Or at the U20 men’s tournament in Poland?

I wonder what the men working as Video Assistant Referees for the Women’s World Cup are thinking about women footballers and referees. I wonder what they are thinking about the difference that gender makes. How might race and gender be impacting the way that the VARs are reading the screens? Who does a freeze frame help, or hurt? We do not see the game through a race and gender neutral lens unless we’ve made a commitment to unlearning how racism and sexism pattern how we see what we see. I find it hard to believe that the decisions made by a group of men charged with reviewing the decisions of a team of women are not shaped by their attitudes about the women and the women’s game.

This, hopefully, will be the first and last world cup to give us this optic of a battery of men with no history in the women’s game supervising women referees. Maybe this situation will force FIFA to give up its antiquated policy of segregated referee lists. Maybe we are inching towards a more gender dynamic environment in the sport.

As it happens, during his press conference Collina reviewed a VAR call from (I think) last night’s match. When he showed a short clip of the VAR team at work, I spied a pony tail, two seats from the left: is that a woman referee in training? My bet is that it is Sian Massey-Ellis, getting herself ready not just for the next World Cup, but for next season’s Premiership. Oh, check that. It’s Scotland’s Kylie Cockburn! Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 8.01.54 PM.png

 

*I first drafted this working off of FIFA’s own press releases re VAR. I’ve been watching matches in person, in bars and missed that there are women working in the VAR room as Assistant Video Assistant Referees — eg Oleksandra Ardasheva, who worked the France-Brazil match. My first draft didn’t reflect this fact; I’ve gone through the post and edited to finesse my main points, which still work. Thank you Twitter for sorting me out!

 

 

 

 

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