WSL should prioritise professional referees before skipping ahead to VAR

Jamie Spencer
The standard of refereeing remains the biggest criticism of the WSL
The standard of refereeing remains the biggest criticism of the WSL / Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/GettyImages

The WSL has grown at an incredible pace in recent years, with increased investment and exposure taking women’s football towards the greater status it deserves.

The performance of the England national team at major tournaments since 2015, but particularly since 2019, has served as a catalyst for bigger interest in the club game. Better marketing, a major commercial deal with Barclays and a lucrative new broadcasting contract with the BBC and Sky Sports have also contributed massively to an increasingly attractive and polished product.

There are now also plans to bring a form of ‘light’ VAR system to the WSL, further mirroring on-field developments from the Premier League in recent years – but still keeping it budget-appropriate.

There is no doubt that VAR, which could potentially come to the WSL by 2023, would benefit the league. But it is still not the most important priority when it comes to officiating.

Arguably more important than VAR is goal-line technology, which has become part of the furniture in the Premier League since its implementation in 2013. But before even that, the basic standard of on-field refereeing remains a huge issue in the WSL.

The calibre of clubs and players make it arguably the best domestic women’s league in the world, yet the quality of WSL refereeing falls way short of that standard.

It is no fault of the officials themselves. They are part-time and therefore unable to dedicate themselves to reaching the elite standard that the competition expects and deserves.

Manchester United fans are still struggling to get over a penalty awarded to Brighton in a WSL game two years ago that cost their team points. On that occasion, Kirsty Dowle pointed to the spot, signalling handball against Katie Zelem when the United captain had headed the ball clear.

The WSL has improved in so many ways in the two years since. But basic bad refereeing calls are still too frequent. Arsenal were left raging last month when play was allowed to continue during a Manchester City attack after the ball had struck referee Abigail Byrne. Seconds later, City scored.

"If they're going to be on Sky Sports refereeing matches, they should be given all the resources that they need to prepare and practice and work on fitness and that’s where we need to focus,” Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall urged in the aftermath of that horror moment.

“Let’s raise the standard around refereeing and give them the help they need. Everyone will make mistakes and the only thing I am always going to be an advocate for is the fix around it and giving them the best possible conditions.”

With everything else that makes the WSL so good, it is a major black mark against the league that world class players are not matched by world class referees…or even full-time referees.

Considering a plan to implement VAR feels like skipping ahead before the basics and fundamentals are properly in place, like running before you can walk. VAR will weed out a lot of the refereeing mistakes but it can’t be instead of improving the standard of on-field referees in the first place.

VAR: Good

Goal-line technology: better

Professional & properly funded referees: best

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