Sydney Schneider, Jamaica’s 19-year-old goalkeeper, had already saved one penalty in this tournament, getting her hand in front of an effort from Brazil’s Andressa in the opener and receiving a shoutout from Usain Bolt for her efforts. Eleven minutes into her second group stage game against Italy, she faced another one. Again she guessed correctly. Again she slapped the attempt away.
This was a big moment for Jamaica, a minor victory to buoy its spirits for the rest of the match and a feel-good story for the viewers back home. Schneider’s a junior at UNC Wilmington, not a star at Juventus. Goalkeepers tend to be late bloomers; to be playing, much less saving two penalties, in a World Cup at 19 is unheard of. Jamaica is playing in its first-ever World Cup, and its struggles to even get to France have been well-documented. Schneider’s teammates ran in to celebrate the save with her and were already lining up for the Italian corner kick when they learned it was being run through video assistant referee to see if she stepped off her line before the ball was kicked.
Schneider had stepped off her line. The save was called back. Italy would try again. Cristiana Girelli corrected her mistake, sending Schneider the wrong way to open up the scoring in what would become a 5–0 Italy victory.* Schneider struggled at times against the Italians’ powerful attack. Her best play of the game was erased from the record books.
In all but the most egregious circumstances, the referee lets a play like this go. (And when it is called, everyone but the fans of the beneficiary will remind you that in all but the most egregious circumstances, the referee lets a play like this go.) Every goalkeeper in the world steps forward before moving sideways. The penalty taker has enough advantages already. Penalties are more fun when they’re saved. The rule works better when it has a little give to it.
VAR, though, has scraped away decades of gray area that have built up in and around the Laws of the Game. A shoulder thrust past a defender as an attacker prepares to run onto a pass in behind. A hand lifted in a sprint that tips a pass inside the box. The point and degree of contact as two players jostle over the ball. All can be checked and examined and penalized, when before they might have gotten a wave and a play on. The discretion of the referee is no longer limited by her perspective.
But while referees may be all-seeing now, they’re not all-knowing. A controversial own goal was allowed to stand on Thursday after the referee determined that Australia’s Sam Kerr, who had been offside, wasn’t interfering with play when Brazil’s Monica Hickmann Alves headed into her own net.* Many were baffled by the decision, including in Australia. What did she see that we didn’t? VAR is trapped in an uncanny valley between the objective and the subjective, close enough to the former that the slight remnant of the latter feels particularly frustrating.
But players are adjusting. Defenders are already more likely to scuttle across the box with both arms locked behind their backs. In the future, more goalkeepers will stay rooted to the spot, and a slightly higher percentage of penalty kicks will be scored as a result. It would’ve been nice if this one hadn’t been.
Correction, June 14, 2019: This post originally misspelled Cristiana Girelli’s first name and Monica Hickmann Alves’ last name.