England booked their place in the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup but their 3-0 win over Cameroon will be remembered for less savory reasons. From striking players to alleged spitting, events bordered on farcical.
"I can't stand here and say I enjoyed that," said England head coach Phil Neville after his team's 3-0 win over Cameroon. "It didn't feel like football."
The former England international was referring chiefly to the unprofessional behavior of the Cameroon players and staff during a farcical World Cup last-16 tie in Valenciennes.
But he could have been referring to any number of VAR controversies, tearful tantrums, reckless challenges, threatened strike action, spitting or even demands from an outraged Cameroonian journalist in the press box that his compatriots leave the pitch – all of which overshadowed the three goals from Steph Houghton, Ellen White and Alex Greenwood which saw England advance to the quarterfinals.
The farce began after the second of those goals in injury time at the end of the first half, which was given after the video assistant referee confirmed that White was a meter onside, correcting a clear and obvious error from the assistant on the near side. So far, so good.
Refusal to kick off
But the Cameroonian players, led by captain Gabrielle Onguene, saw things differently and, gathered together in a huddle in the center circle, appeared to refuse to restart play for over three minutes.
To the relief of everyone inside the Stade du Hainaut in north-eastern France, Cameroon re-emerged for the second half, but it didn't take long for controversy to return. After Cameroon took advantage of a poor clearance from England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, Ajara Nchout finished clinically.
But the strike was ruled out after the video assistant's calibrated lines identified a fractionally offside position in the build-up. The decision was, theoretically speaking, correct, but that was of no consolation to Nchout, the 26-year-old bursting into tears in the arms of head coach Alain Djeumfa.
As the Cameroon players and staff gesticulated wildly in the direction of the big screens inside the stadium, play was delayed again. Referee Liang had lost control, and England almost lost their composure.
Just minutes after Bardsley's poor clearance, a short back pass from Alex Greenwood inadvertedly played Alexandra Takounda clean through on goal, but the substitute fluffed her lines. Once they had regained their cool, the Lionesses wrapped up the victory with a well-worked corner routine and a cool finish from Greenwood, but the already tense mood was soured even further in injury time when a Takounda caught Houghton with a dangerous late challenge.
VAR hits the headlines - again
It wasn't intentional but it was unnecessary and reckless, an outpouring of pent-up frustration, some of which was understandable, most of which was not. The Cameroon players' apparent inability or unwillingness to understand or accept the video assistant's technology-assisted decision was frankly embarrassing, especially in the case of England's second goal, about which there could be no argument.
When it comes to Cameroon's disallowed goal however, critics of VAR may have some sympathy with the distraught Nchout, whose finish was chalked off because Gaelle Emganamouit's trailing heel was adjudged to be a matter of millimeters offside as she was jogging back into position before providing the cross. By the letter of the law, the decision was correct. By the spirit of the law, it was not.
Indeed, when we start needing calibrated lines and slow-motion replays to determine whether a retreating player's heel is offside, the shark has well and truly been jumped. In such a scenario, the player is not goal-hanging, not gaining an advantage, and the offside rule has already done its job.
But modern football's unquenchable thirst for perfection in an imperfect game demands that we analyze every decision in the minutest detail. It's what the billions of global viewers demand from a game which has become little more than a TV soap opera. And as the raw emotion of live sport is drained, it is the match-going supporters in the stadium who suffer most.
A bad example for all
Nevertheless, fundamental arguments over the sense of VAR aside, the Cameroon players' reactions were unacceptable, as was head coach Djeumfa's post-match claim that there had been "a miscarriage of justice." Midfielder Raissa Feudjio added: "We didn't want to play any more, we just wanted the game to be over. We continued playing for our country despite the referee doing her dirty work."
As Neville pointed out in an on-field interview with the BBC, it set a bad example at a tournament which is supposed to be capitalizing on a welcome boost in the women's game globally.
"This is going out worldwide. There are young girls out there seeing that behavior and it's not right," he said, although he should probably have stopped short of declaring himself "completely and utterly ashamed of the behavior of the opposition" in the post-match press conference and focused instead on his own team, whose lapses of concentration would have been punished by a better team, such as their quarterfinal opponents, Norway.
There are much better teams than Cameroon at this tournament, which has already demonstrated the gulf between certain nations in terms of the professionalization of the women's game across the globe.
If the sporting gulf was highlighted by the USA's 13-0 hammering of Thailand, the gulf in professional conduct and attitude was laid bare by Cameroon, whose women's team only played outside of Africa for the first time in 2012 and whose football association forgot to organize a pre-World Cup preparation tournament for the team.
A regrettable afternoon for the West African nation was finally compounded by defender Augustine Ejangue appearing to spit at England's Toni Duggan, a further unsavory addition to a football match which didn't feel like football.