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VAR Strikes Again: Argentina Stuns Scotland With Late PK Controversy

There have been some cruel replay decisions at the World Cup. On Wednesday, Scotland crashed out of the tournament after losing a 3-0 lead.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I just wanted everybody to be happy in Scotland-Argentina. This is the first World Cup appearance for Scotland’s women’s team, and neither the nation’s women’s or men’s teams have ever advanced to the knockout rounds of any major international tournament—not the World Cup, not the Euros, nothing. Argentina’s men’s team has a famously successful history, but its women’s team hadn’t recorded a point at the World Cup before this year’s tournament kicked off. But both teams fought hard in their games against the other two teams in the group, Japan and perennial contenders England. Scotland took a pair of tough one-goal losses, while Argentine keeper Vanina Correa stopped eight of nine shots on goal to give the Argentines a 0-0 draw against Japan and a 1-0 loss to England. Neither team seemed to care about their World Cup histories as they battled tooth-and-nail against perennial giants for respect—and a chance at moving on. A win for either team would put them in position to advance from the group stages.

The Scots pounced on that opportunity, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the 69th minute. At that point, FiveThirtyEight gave them a 99 percent chance to advance through to the knockout stages, and for good reason—no team had ever blown a 3-0 lead at the Women’s World Cup before. They age all that whiskey for wins like the one Scotland was heading toward.

But then came a goal from Milagros Menéndez in the 74th minute. In Spanish, her first name means “miracles.”

Next, Florencia Bonsegundo bombed in a shot that ricocheted off the crossbar and in off Scottish keeper Lee Alexander in the 79th minute. OK, I’m not going to point out that names determined everything in this match, but a hybrid French-Spanish translation of her last name means “good second,” and I gotta say it was a pretty good second goal.

And then, in the 86th minute, an attack by Argentina’s Aldana Cometti was cut down by a Scottish defender when she was in on goal. The referee initially declined to give a foul, but after a VAR review, it was determined that Argentina would get a penalty kick. The tension was preposterous, as Scotland’s hopes of staying in the tournament depended on the penalty. They acted like it, too. Multiple Scottish players protested the decision to the referee, while other Scots stood next to Bonsegundo as she prepared for the kick. I would do anything to know what those Scottish distractors were saying to Bonsegundo, hoping that in the biggest moment of their lives, they could rattle the woman who held their fates on her foot, even if she might not have spoken the same language.

Perhaps it worked. Bonsegundo shot an ugly dribbler directly into the arms of Alexander, who was briefly victorious. But then came another VAR review: Alexander had stepped off the goal line before Bonsegundo had kicked the ball, resulting in a retake.

This time, she drilled it into the back of the net. (See? Another good second by Bonsegundo.)

It’s the second critical keeper-came-off-their-line-on-a-penalty ruling of this World Cup. In the Nigeria-France game, officials determined that Nigerian goalie Chiamaka Nnadozie came off her line when France’s Wendie Renard missed a penalty with the game tied at 0-0. Given a second chance, France scored and went on to win the game 1-0, jeopardizing Nigeria’s hopes of advancing. While the rules have always prevented a keeper from coming off their line on a penalty kick, it was rarely enforced until VAR gave officials the ability to determine with 100 percent certainty when a keeper jumps a quarter-second early. While the rule was applied correctly in Scotland-Argentina and France-Nigeria, giving such a massive reward for such a minor miscue seems like a miscarriage of justice.

As a surefire win turned into a 3-3 draw, Scotland’s total points from its group stage matches dropped from three points to just one, eliminating them from the tournament. Argentina is unlikely to advance either, but for a nation that hadn’t even tied a match at the World Cup, they’ve done their nation proud by pulling off the grandest comeback in tournament history. And the ripples were felt around the world. While the men’s World Cup sends just two teams from each four-team group to the knockout stages, the women’s edition sends the top two teams plus the four highest-placed third-place finishers from all groups. Thanks to Argentina’s draw, Cameroon, New Zealand, Chile, and Thailand still have hopes of advancing. (Thailand doesn’t have very good hopes, but they’re hopes nonetheless.)

Yes, perhaps there is too big of a disparity between the best teams in the World Cup and the worst. Perhaps allowing third-place teams into the knockout rounds does sap some of the drama from the group stages. And perhaps VAR does take correctness too far. But Wednesday proved that a game between two teams with meager histories, fighting for third place in their group, marred by questionable (if accurate) officiating, could still be spectacular.

The 2019 World Cup has raised many questions about whether the game and the tournament’s format could be improved with tweaks. Some say 24 teams is too many, especially in the giants-and-minnows world of international women’s soccer. Others say VAR is being used too frequently, massively rewarding ticky-tack infractions that go against the spirit of the game.

Wednesday’s match between Scotland and Argentina didn’t answer those questions. All it did was provide a thriller for the ages.