18 June 2018
Australia got the job done against France in their opening game at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Despite the 2-1 loss, the broader aim is qualifying for the knockout phase from the group, and with that, against by far the group’s strongest team, the primary aim was of damage minimisation. While a draw would obviously be better, or even to snag a win, the most realistic and critical outcome was goal difference. The 4-0 hammering to Germany in 2010 cost the Socceroos a spot in the next round, while the experimental 2014 team lost 3-1 to Chile – effectively ending their campaign when Netherlands and Spain were still to follow.
After a nervy start, Australia handled both themselves and France well. While France always looked the more dangerous side, eventually they ran out of ideas and Australia began to create the occasional opportunity themselves. Nil-nil at half time was perfect, and it was hoped the pattern could remain. Then, after 10 minutes into the second half, the chaos started. A penalty on Antoine Griezmann when tripped by Josh Risdon was followed within minutes by one for Australia when Samuel Umtiti inexplicably, and deliberately, handle the ball. Mile Jedinak converted while Umtiti inexplicably avoided a yellow card.
As the game progressed, Australia began to tire and became sloppy, losing the ball too often in midfield either by dallying too much on the ball or through errant passing. Eventually France would capitalise, and it happened in the last 10 minutes when Paul Pogba ran onto a loose pass and shot on goal. It deflected off Aziz Behich’s leg, over goal-keeper Mat Ryan, off the crossbar and over the line. Curiously it was awarded as an own goal by Behich. So disappointing to concede so late after all of that hard work was done.
All the post-match focus since has been about that penalty to France. It was the first time the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) had been used to determine a penalty situation at a World Cup, and it’s driven controversy online and in the media since. Much of this is through ignorance or a downright denial of reality. For those in Australia it’s been led by SBS’s Craig Foster. While initially he agreed with the decision (as the commentators did), he reversed his view and now claims no penalty. Claims that only “clear and obvious” errors are meant to be “overturned” is also misleading.
First, the use of VAR. For penalty decisions, the FIFA website says its “role is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made”. There’s nothing about “overturning” a decision. With the VAR active, the referee, when in doubt, is more likely inclined not to unnecessarily stop the game and call a penalty, preferring to wait for notification from the VAR. In this particular case, the referee was notified of a possible missed decision, went and checked the video himself and awarded a penalty. His decision was never “overturned” as the system relating to penalty kicks is not about that anyway. It’s about preventing clearly wrong decisions, and denying a penalty based on the footage would have been clearly wrong. The system worked.
As for the decision itself, the chorus of “he touched the ball” as somehow meant to annul further fouls is nonsense. Again, Foster has led this in Australia, primarily from picking out of context David Elleray’s (former English referee and head of VAR) admission Risdon got a touch on the ball. Even Australia’s players post-game, and captain Mile Jedinak in the press conference, blindly blathered away about this infamous “touch” – a touch that was barely noticeable and only deviated the ball’s direction by 5 degrees, if that. The touch is irrelevant, as Griezmann is still entitled to regather the ball. In his subsequent stride, Risdon lifted his leg and clearly tripped Griezmann. That’s always a penalty. The sequence of events:
David Elleray’s full quote:
It’s a shame there’s been so much focus on this one incident as it’s a mostly a distraction. Facts are France “handed” Australia a penalty back within minutes, reversing the damage and restoring the game to level scores. Australia lost because of their constant turnovers in midfield that gave France too many opportunities on the break. Australia were lucky not to be punished earlier. So look to the match in the broader picture, praise the team for playing so well and remaining so disciplined. Whinging won’t help. Even the complaints against France’s Lucas Hernandez constantly going down on any minor contact is irrelevant. As he admitted in the press conference, “Sometimes I exaggerate, but that’s all part of the spectacle… it also helps to take more time when you are winning.”, it’s all part of the game.
Mile Jedinak was right about one thing: It’s time to move on and look forward to Denmark. With Denmark beating Peru 1-0 in their opening game, that blocks the scenario of two draws being enough for Australia to qualify for the knockout phase. That would have been a real scenario as long as France beat Denmark and Peru by more than a goal, and all other games were draws. As it stands, and presuming France doesn’t implode and lose both of its remaining games, Australia cannot afford a loss to Denmark otherwise it’s all over. A draw will mean the final game is alive and goal difference will likely count (the real achievement made against France). A win will mean a draw is most likely enough against Peru. A win by two or more goals means a narrow loss to Peru would also be sufficient.
– Australia plays Denmark on Thursday night 21 June at 22:00 AET. France vs Peru follows at 01:00 on 22 June. The group’s final games are Tuesday night 26 June at midnight (00:00 27 June).