Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Where can I even begin? I can report on what happened, at least as much as it was possible for one mind to grasp. But that only touches the edges. This wasn’t simply a game of soccer; it was a microcosm for life itself. Confusing, frustrating, horrifying, joyous, enthralling, soul-crushing.
All I can really do is describe what it felt like to be there, and try to reflect on what it means for us to have experienced it.
Like all good ghost stories, it all started fairly innocuous. The first half went more or less according to plan, with both sides coming out looking for a goal, and Scotland being the one to actually break through. It was an entertaining half of soccer, with Argentina finally playing more expansively—losing some of their defensive solidity but also starting to pose more of a serious attacking threat.
But they also looked like a team mostly composed of amateur players with no institutional support and no training regimens, who had already played two incredibly intense games in the previous nine days. The opened strong, but were fading badly after about 25 minutes and it felt like a genuine struggle to make it to the half.
Things only got worse from there. They came out flat in the second half, and Scotland racked up two more goals, taking it to 3-0 and seemingly putting a cap on the game. Argentina then subbed off their two best attacking players—Estefania Banini and Sole Jaimes, both of whom had put in some serious shifts over the course of the tournament and surely needed a break. But it felt like throwing in the towel. They nearly made it 4-0 on another Erin Cuthbert (who was phenomenal) breakaway, which was stopped cold by my new favorite player, Lorena Benítez. But the writing wasn’t just on the wall. It felt etched in stone. At the 70th minute, I effectively declared the game over, and Scotland through to the knockout rounds.
Technically Scotland have to wait on results tomorrow, but for all practical purposes, they are through to the round of 16 unless something absolutely bonkers happens in the final twenty minutes here. — Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 19, 2019
Maybe the goal was simply to give some additional players a chance in a World Cup. Maybe they always knew that they had an absolute dynamite super sub in Milagros Menendez. Maybe it was pure luck. But whatever the motivation, Menendez scored within ten minutes of coming on, and played a crucial role in setting up a second goal as well. At 3-1, the mood of the crowd was celebratory. Scotland was still dominant, but Argentina had their consolation. Everyone was happy!
But then Florencia Bonsegundo—who had an excellent game—put in another (it was technically scored as an own goal but come on). And suddenly this was very much in doubt. Scotland, so dominant just a few minutes before, started going to pieces. Rather than calmly possessing the ball, passing rings around Argentina who were running on pure adrenaline and fumes, the Scottish players grew nervous. They started making mistakes. And then Argentina made another foray into the Scotland penalty area. A tackle came in…and the crowd took one huge collective breath. Was it a penalty?
There was no whistle. Play continued. The Argentina players were furious. The Scotland players thankful.
But this is 2019. In the world of VAR, nothing is ever what it initially seems. Because once play stopped the referee, Ri Hyang Ok, held everything in stasis, hand to her ear. The crowd roared. The Argentina players shouted and gestured.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Ri made the fatal symbol, and walked to the video booth. The noise grew and grew. The Argentina players began gesturing to the crowd, raising their arms in supplication. The crowd responded. Waves and waves cascaded around the stadium. And then finally, Ri stepped back onto the field…and pointed at the penalty spot.
Madness! Chaos! It took several minutes to actually take the penalty. Or maybe several weeks. To be honest, the very concept of time had faded into meaningless by this point (more on that later!). The referee explained the rules, warned Lee Alexander in Scotland’s goal to not come off her line, and pushed all the other players out of the area. Finally, the penalty was taken.
Speaking to Alexander after the game, she described her thoughts in that moment. She had seen several penalty saves called back already in the tournament, with this new world of micro-millimeter checks, so she was very conscientious of her footwork.
But muscle memory is more powerful than the waking mind. And the rules are simply not forgiving of human reality. Because Alexander did come off her line, despite her best intentions. Not by much. Certainly not enough for the referee to see in the moment. Which meant, once again, that the Scotland celebrations were ripped away. Instead of saving their win, and their advancement, Alexander was booked for her troubles.
At this point, it would be impossible to reconstruct the emotions that were coursing through me. I was thrilled, horrified, in shock. It felt like sticking my finger in an electric socket. It felt like the whole world had gone mad.It was simply impossible to process.
And I was a neutral, there as media to simply observe and report. I had no team in the game, no rooting interest. I certainly like both of these teams and would have been happy to see either advance. But nothing more than that. I can’t even comprehend what it would have been like to be a fan, or god forbid a player in that moment.
On the second try, Bonsegundo put away her chance. As has been the case in each of the three instances of a penalty retake in this tournament. It’s hard to enough to save a penalty under normal circumstances. To do so when already on a yellow, which you received when you thought you were following the rule, makes it nigh impossible.
And so it was 3-3. A score that helped precisely no one. So as play restarted everyone burst from the gate, desperate to find a winner. Bemused, in shock, we all looked at the clock and saw it sitting on 90:00, where it had been for quite a while apparently. The 4th official held up the sign signaling 4 minutes of added time. Surely enough time for another goal, given the pace of events.
But then, barely a minute had gone by and the referee blew her whistle. Play stopped, confused. The referee pointed at the center circle. Why? I have no idea. She picked up the ball. Everyone stood around, bewildered. The assistant referees walked onto the pitch. The stadium PA declared the result final.
Where did the time go? What are the rules here? The initial turn to VAR happened around 86:00. The whole process took seven minutes. Was that real time? Did it actually happen? How was it accounted? What are the rules here?
I remain as baffled right now as I was then.
This, from a friend, seems like an apt characterization of the issue: “Ridiculous that FIFA is so concerned about an inch over the line and so unconcerned with 10 minutes of lost play.” — Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 19, 2019
If the purpose of VAR is to install objectivity into the game, to make it more fair, it seems well worth looking into some of the other features of game play. Where did those missing minutes go? Why were so many fouls unwhistled in this game? Do we really want endless litigation of millimeters – debates about whether the foot is touching the line or only hovering over the line?
All of that is a conversation that will continue well beyond this game. And there’s no point dwelling on it more here.
I want to end with the Scotland players. This team, full of talent and enthusiasm, who had brought their country to the World Cup for the first time, and inspired so many in the process. And then seen it all slip through their fingers.
I want to sit and watch them console each other, lift themselves up and walk over to their fans, to applaud them for their support. I want to honor them as they climb into the stands, sobbing, hugging their families. I want to commend them as they walk through the mixed zone, and put up with questions from reporters who want them to describe their state of mind on the worst day of their sporting career. I want to stand with the fans outside the stadium, waiting by the team bus, chanting and cheering and singing “we have the best team in the world.”
At moments like this, I’m torn. It’s so silly to let something as ultimately meaningless as sports hurt this much. But ultimately it’s a good pain. It cleanses and heals. It reminds us that we are all mortal, imperfect, broken. But in sharing our suffering, we can transcend it. And understand, if only for a little while, what it truly means to be human.