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Benefield: Local coaches unimpressed with video review at Women's World Cup

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I know, I know — VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has gotten a ton of heat in the Women’s World Cup, what with complaints of slowing down the games, chopping up the flow of play and, well, changing entire countries’ sporting destinies with heartbreaking (and sometimes completely head-scratching) call reversals.

But consider if we had more VAR in our lives, not less.

Imagine being able to literally stop time, press a little speaker to your head and hear what must feel like the voice of God in your left ear. With their multiple viewing perspectives on your situation, a small group of experts could offer advice on any number of issues that arise in day-to-day life: Is that joke water-cooler appropriate? Is taking a run at karaoke on a first date really a good idea? Or how about a second, third, fourth set of eyes to determine which of your kids was really at fault in that last epic meltdown?

As the referee in your own life, you could then take the advice from the expert panel or completely disregard it. Then you press the magic button on your watch and time goes live again with everyone around none the wiser. Genius.

As intriguing as using VAR in everyday decision-making sounds, it’s been far less of a boon in this Women’s World Cup. In reality, it has been a major distraction from the soccer on the field — and that is a massive shame.

VAR was introduced with minimal controversy at the men’s World Cup in Russia last year, and it’s used in Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and in MLS. But oh my — its use in this tournament has ignited howls. And justifiably so.

“It’s been pretty bad thus far,” said Tino Fonzeca, head coach of both the girls and boys soccer teams at Roseland University Prep.

Goal rulings are being overturned on seemingly ticky-tack infractions, players are left standing on the field for inordinate amounts of time while the referee examines a monitor on the sideline, and games are going as much as 15 minutes over regular time to account for all of the monitor-watching and hand-wringing. In some cases, seemingly victorious teams look unsure whether to celebrate or wait for the referee to do the dreaded VAR monitor pantomime routine, indicating that a play will be reviewed.

It’s all been very disorienting for a game that prides itself on being free-flowing, free of timeouts and, up to now, largely free of referees saying, “Whoops, my bad” and turning back the hands of time.

The intent of VAR is clear, and well-intentioned: Bring in multi-angle video to help referees eliminate major mistakes on the field. Think “Hand of God,” Diego Maradona’s hand-ball goal against England in the 1986 World Cup that led Argentina to a quarterfinal win.

But VAR is sucking the life out of games that have been otherwise thrilling and world-class.

“You want to get it right, but at what point does it become no longer the game?” Fonzeca said.

Petaluma High girls coach Deegan Babala is trying to remain patient, but he, too, is conflicted.

“It’s very new. People are still figuring it out,” he said. “It’s hard because the main thing it wants to do is eliminate very obvious mistakes — that’s why it’s supposed to be there, not to change a game or re-referee a situation.”

Only that’s exactly how it feels VAR is unfolding in France.

In Monday’s knockout game between Canada and Sweden, VAR came into play when Desiree Scott’s shot in the box for Canada was deflected off the arm of Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani. The referee initially did not award a penalty kick and had to twice consult the monitor. In the end, she walked away from the viewing station and pointed to the spot, indicating a hand ball had occurred, and awarding a penalty kick.

Later in the game, Sweden was given a penalty opportunity, only to have it be — yes — overturned after VAR review. It was deemed a Swedish player was offside, negating the ensuing foul.

And even after the final whistle — and the game clock reading an ungodly 98:51 — there was still doubt it was over. The referee put her hand to her right ear and the television commentators wonder aloud: “This is the final play; are they reviewing this?”

If the experts on TV are confused, what must if feel like to be on the field, on the biggest stage of your career? Does Sweden celebrate or run into the locker room before someone in a blue shirt plays charades and mimes a rectangular shape in the air?

“Seems like every day, every night, at some point we are talking VAR,” Fox Sports’ Rob Stone said after the game. “According to my eyesight, it sure looked like they were having a VAR discussion after the final whistle. VAR just keeps getting crazier and crazier.”

The examples are copious.

In France’s extra-time win over Brazil on Sunday, a ruled goal was called back after VAR review and, later, an offside call rendered a goal no good — only to be reviewed and overturned. Goal.

When France’s captain Amandine Henry scored the game-winner in the 107th minute, her first thought wasn’t joy as it should have been.

“I didn’t even have the strength to get up,” she told reporters after the game. “I hoped VAR wasn’t going to take it back.”

And that is one of the biggest negatives of VAR — it’s squashing the flood of emotions that soccer is so loaded with. When something dramatic happens on the field, you can already see it — players are pausing, looking over their shoulders, waiting for the dreaded pantomimed box move.

“I’m OK with some human error to keep the game going. That is one of the beauties of soccer; we don’t have huge stoppages,” said Chris Ziemer, Sonoma Academy’s athletic director and girls soccer coach. “It has sort of chopped up the game.”

Ziemer was in France the first two weeks of the tournament and said VAR delays are felt in the stadium by fans, not just by those of us watching at home.

“These VAR stoppages sort of took any momentum that was generated and took it away. In the stadium, you could feel it,” he said.

But the biggest downer of this whole discussion is that it’s a discussion at all, according to Ziemer.

“The biggest thing for me is that we are talking about it. That’s a disappointment,” he said. “It’s been a great World Cup. And most of the soundbites are about VAR. The fact that it’s become a talking point, it’s taken away from the beauty on the field.”

That said, Ziemer advocates for a review of the technology and a thorough, post-tournament survey of coaches and players about the impact on the game and how it can be improved.

“It hasn’t been a positive for me,” he said. “I realize that as a fan, though, you are only a small part of it.”

Fonzeca and Babala, too, feel the technology could be a positive if implemented correctly. Clearly, that balance hasn’t been reached in France.

“I don’t think it’s going to be perfect any time soon,” Babala said.

And in the end, he and others are not advocates of perfection. But it’s got to be better than this.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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