FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019: Women’s football popularity and VAR controversy

By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King, London, UK

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France concluded on Sunday 7 July with the United States beating the Netherlands 2-0.

The tournament has seen record audiences across the world tuning in to watch matches according to broadcasters.

In the Netherlands, an average audience of 5.48 million watched the final with a peak audience of 6.3 million.

Viewing figures in the United States, where the final aired live on Sunday morning, showed that a combined audience of 15.2 million viewers watched the United States claim its fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In the UK, the final attracted an average audience of 3.248 million, higher than the 2.7 million viewers for the third-place match between England and Sweden. Those figures are significantly down on the peak 11.7 million viewers (10.3 million average) that watched England’s semi-final against the United States, making the semi-final the most-watched British television broadcast of the year so far.

Prior to the tournament, FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, claimed that “We already sold out 20 matches or so” and the official figure released in relation to ticket sales was 950,000 tickets. FIFA later revised the number of matches sold out to 24 as it confirmed that it had sold over 1 million tickets. The final figure for number of tickets sold was 1.16 million, which is slightly short of the 1.35 million tickets sold at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. It should be noted that the final did see a full house of 57,900.

Notwithstanding the high popularity levels at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the tournament has passed without controversy, largely in relation to the introduction of VAR for the first time at this event. Prior to this use, VAR had not been tested in women’s football.

There were numerous flash points in the World Cup caused by the implementation of VAR.

In the France against Nigeria match, France won, courtesy of a retaken penalty that was only awarded after a double VAR check. In the 80th minute, France were awarded a penalty after Viviane Asseyi was adjudged to have been tripped by Nigeria’s Ngozi Ebere. The penalty was awarded after the referee consulted with VAR. Wendie Renard’s penalty struck the post; however, after a further VAR check, a decision was made for the penalty to be retaken, as a result of the Nigerian goalkeeper being adjudged to have moved off her line before the ball was struck. Wendie Renard scored the retaken penalty.

In another match beset with VAR drama, England beat Cameroon 3-0, in the round of 16 to progress to the quarter finals. The game was marred in controversy following the Cameroonian players’ reactions to VAR decisions that went against them. Following a decision to disallow a Cameroon goal after a VAR review, the Cameroonian player Nchout Ajara was left in tears and she, along with her teammates, threatened to stop playing and delayed the restart. This followed a previous incident where England were awarded a goal following a VAR review that showed an England player in an offside position, albeit not interfering with play, when England scored. The awarding of the goal led to the Cameroon players congregating in the centre circle and refusing to continue playing. Also, there was spitting on one of the England players and the England captain, Steph Houghton, late in the game suffered a ‘horror’ tackle!

FIFA are investigating all of these incidents in this match and disciplinary action against Cameroon is expected to follow.

There is a lesson to be learned from these incidents arising from the use of VAR at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, namely, that, if a new technology is going to be introduced, the individuals that will be affected by the technology need time to adapt to it.

There appeared to be no reason why FIFA could not have introduced VAR in different competitions within the Women’s game, rather than introducing it for the first time on the biggest stage and letting the controversy play out in front of a global audience!

Jonathan Copping may be contacted by e-mail at ‘JonathanCopping@stoneking.co.uk’