Last night, when Ellen White slotted the ball home for England after Jill Scott's neat flick perfectly bisected the USA defence, a chant went up in a London pub: Football’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming – a soft echo of last summer's Southgate-mania, a fan-base beginning to find its voice in a new context, support for a side of the sport that few cared about four years ago.
Such moments will propel women's football towards the kind of global respect and wild public enthusiasm currently reserved for the men's game. Except, of course, last night's chanting was quickly replaced by two minutes of exasperation, followed by an almighty groan.
White was so marginally offside that the referee's assistant hadn't spotted it – but nothing escapes the Video Assistant Referee and the officials' enthusiasm to use it seemingly at every opportunity. The cheers had already happened, but the goal was struck out. It was a huge bummer.
The sweltering months of last summer were punctuated by a recurring image – that of plastic pint glasses exploding into the air as England's men scored goal after slab-headed goal in Russia. It was a thing of beauty, a collective expression of joy declared from Hyde Park to Croydon Boxpark, pub gardens from Cornwall to Carlisle.
Other than right after the scoring of an important goal, there is surely no other moment in life in which you'll find yourself jumping up and down, hugging a perfect stranger, screaming at each other in frenzied ecstasy. If VAR continues to be used like it was in the England vs. USA game, that kind of thing won't happen anymore; instead of spontaneous eruption, we'll be conditioned to second guess ourselves, in case we have to wait to watch the replay and ensure our celebration is justified. The best thing about football will have been killed, stone-dead, by an all-seeing fun-sponge in a control booth. The seeds of doubt are being sown in the beautiful game, and doubt is kryptonite to anyone who feels like they might want to scream FUCKING GET IN and throw a fiver's worth of continental lager to the heavens.
Other sports variously have more complicated points systems or more opportunities to score, meaning they lack the explosive joy of football. A try scored in a rugby game tends to be signposted better than a 30-yard screamer that comes together out of nowhere, leading to utter pandemonium. Take basketball, where someone seems to score every few minutes, making many baskets kind of meh. If you follow a football team that's in a rut, you can go weeks without seeing them hit the back of the net. That moment of total catharsis when they finally, finally stick it in is special, and specific to football.
An international team from a tiny country might be lucky to score a single goal in a World Cup. Such a goal is the fans' cue to go absolutely bananas. Why ruin that by making them have to wonder whether the officials initially missed the fact that someone's quiff put them a millimetre offside? To wait for a minute until the energy has dissipated and only then start their muted celebrations?
There's a question about what kind of game we want to watch. Do we want to moan in futility about VAR in wipe-clean panopticon-stadiums designed for people who film penalties on their phones for the 'gram? Or do we want to keep singing The Referee’s a Wanker, watching a gloriously imperfect but staggeringly efficient banter production-line, with weird decisions and contentious moments working their way into folklore?
VAR debuted at last year’s men's World Cup, birthing memes of officials watching anime films on the VAR screen, or referees on the phone to Vladimir Putin. It had its share of controversial moments, and overall the pundits weren't that keen on it – but it was used with a relatively light touch compared to this year's competition, where it's been relied on with all the alacrity of a dad trying out his new GPS for a trip to the shops.
Fuck America and all that, but this isn’t about sour grapes. England benefitted from over-zealous use of VAR against Cameroon, who had a well-worked goal ruled out because the back of Gabrielle Onguéné's heel seemed on reflection to be an inch offside. A goal might have changed the game, and perhaps England wouldn’t have been in the semi-final anyway. Cameroon's protests might not have been dignified, but it's hard to argue with their frustration at a decision that left a sense of injustice that was no less bitter for the fact that it was technically correct. Even if England had lost that game: Fuck VAR.
On football forums across the internet, midnight posters are suggesting better solutions than FIFA has managed so far. Should each manager be able to demand a limited number of precious VAR reviews per game? Would a heavier presumption in favour of the referee sort it out? Maybe you could limit the number of replays to speed things up? All worthy of consideration, but until it can be used without ruining goal fever: Fuck VAR.
On the night against USA, VAR's crappily perfect justice worked itself out. England was correctly awarded a narrow penalty that probably would not have been spotted without VAR. Steph Houghton duly fluffed it and we lost to a better team because of a rubbish penalty, rather than rough justice.
Without VAR, we probably still would have lost – on penalties, perhaps, after scraping through extra time. But we would have had White’s second, narrowly-offside goal to celebrate. It could have been a thrilling moment of shared delight etched into a new and exciting England story. But it wasn't, so fuck VAR.