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A bridge too VAR: Phil Neville’s handball moans fail to mask English defensive jitters at World Cup

In the aftermath of defeat in the bronze medal game, Phil Neville reflected on another VAR decision going against his striker Ellen White and suggested that FIFA should review the system’s rules.


‘Handball is the big problem,’ said Neville, who is thought to be preparing for new contract discussions with the FA.

‘It wouldn’t surprise me if FIFA have a look at it after this World Cup and tweak the wording. They’ve obviously seen what’s been happening. There’s a grey area between what is unnatural and the [natural] silhouette. Even I don’t understand it.

‘Ellen today was thinking the same. And she had the Golden Boot on the line. It’s cruel. So we probably need to ask: “What is handball?”‘

VAR denied White — adjudged to have controlled with her arm before scoring a goal of supreme technical difficulty with England 2-1 down — two vital goals at the business end of a tournament in which she still scored six. 

They came against five opponents, whereas USA’s Alex Morgan scored five of her six against Thailand. Morgan’s team-mate Megan Rapinoe also scored six, winning the Golden Boot by virtue of three assists (the same number as Morgan) coming in one game fewer.

But the handball debate obscured an inconvenient truth: that England cannot aspire to win a World Cup four years from now with a defence prone to the 20-minute periods of chaos which did for them against Sweden on Saturday, United States in the semi and almost proved calamitous against Japan and Norway.

When this idea was aired post-match, one player suggested it was English media negativity talking. There was certainly a fair bit of post-match revisionism.

Neville, who beforehand proclaimed the significance of third — his processor Mark Sampson’s achievement in 2015 — said in defeat that staging the match was ‘nonsense’.

That’s not how Sampson’s players felt. The tears of the Sweden team revealed they wanted the win more. England had checked out.

The opening half-hour was pretty much England’s tournament in microcosm — strong attacking thrusts punctuated by dreadful leaks at the back.

The goals were both the product of lapses: Alex Greenwood’s weak clearance from her own six-yard box straight to Kosovare Asllani and the failure of anyone to track the run of Sofia Jakobsson 11 minutes later. But more fundamentally, the defence was unable to cope with the pace of the Swedish front-line.

Greenwood was particularly poor. Abbie McManus was little more secure than the suspended Millie Bright, who has not looked comfortable before her dismissal in the semi.

The focus will now turn to the future of the English women’s game and the FA’s attempts to develop the girls of the future, through 1,250 ‘Wild Cats’ girls football centres and partnerships with 100 schools, which it is hoped will make football as much a part of life for English as American girls.

But tournament success can accelerate growth faster than any intervention. Nothing less will do than winning the European Championship in 2021, which is being held in England. The defensive work can’t start soon enough.

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