Image: Wikimedia Commons / Anders Henrikson
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Anders Henrikson

Poor refereeing standards in women’s football: this has to change

“We shouldn’t expect lower standards for women’s football, we should demand that VAR and goal-line technology is part of our sport and as soon as possible.” These were the words of Emma Hayes following Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat to Arsenal in their season opener.

There is no disputing Hayes’ assertion that lower standards in women’s football should not be tolerated. There is also evidently a problem with the standard of officiating in women’s football with several contentious decisions still stinging for fans, and I’m sure players, of the game.

Emma Hayes was provoked to make these comments after conceding a match-winning goal that saw Beth Mead receive the ball in an offside position before going on to fire past Ann Katrin Berger. Similar incidents where VAR would perhaps have been desirable are not hard to come by either. A blatant handball preceded a Tottenham goal that saw them take an early three points versus Man City, with the North London side also benefitting from a Jordan Nobbs goal being inexplicably ruled out after the referee called playback for an earlier foul against Arsenal. 

Neither VAR nor goal-line technology is currently implemented in the women’s game. In a practical sense, there remains a barrier to its implementation due to the infrastructure available at the venues women’s football is played at.

Without regular opportunities to play at the likes of Stamford Bridge and the Emirates Stadium, women’s games are instead played out at non-league stadiums such as Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park and Barnet’s The Hive Stadium. The technology needed for VAR with multiple camera angles is simply not facilitated by these venues.

Until women’s sport is provided with access to top playing facilities, the prospect of VAR seems distant. While Leicester City play a majority of their games at the King Power Stadium, only having VAR in a few matches is not feasible as its application must be across all games in the interest of fairness.

A failure to have already addressed this issue shows a lack of commitment to fully support the development of the women’s game

The argument of proponents of VAR is to provide higher levels of scrutiny to refereeing decisions. But with officials in the women’s game not currently fully professionalised, are there not more pressing issues to address in seeking to improve officiating first?

Currently referees in the women’s league are not full-time, giving them limited opportunity to train and keep up with the rapidly improving standards the game demands. The 2021-22 season did see referees from the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship transfer to the Professional Game Match Officials and receive access to training, facilities and support of referees of the Premier League. This came as part of a three-year investment programme aimed at developing officiating in the women’s game. As of 2020, however, there had been no timeframe implemented for the target of full-time professional referees by 2024

While these aims and targets sound promising, until the women’s game is supported to provide full-time referees for matches there will remain issues with refereeing. A failure to have already addressed this issue shows there remains lacking commitment to fully support the development of the women’s game. While the quality continues to grow on the pitch, supporting all aspects of the game must be a priority to let the game progress.

A lack of full-time professional officials also raises questions should the implementation of VAR be attempted before this step to professionalisation is made. How can those who are not provided with the support to make this their full-time job be put under such intense scrutiny? How can the extra officials that VAR requires be employed when there is already a dearth in sufficiently trained referees?

Officiating remains a chink in the armour of a rapidly developing game that is women’s football. At such an exciting time for the game, with a home Euros on the horizon for England’s women and ever-growing interest, this should be an issue of urgency.

Increasing attention on the game comes with increasing scrutiny for players and referees alike. Before VAR, officials must be given the backing to become full-time professionals and reflect the progress the women’s game has made. 

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