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England’s Fran Kirby fears VAR handball law offers cynical way to win penalties

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/06/2019 Louise Taylor in Le Havre
Christie Murray with a football ball on a field: Fran Kirby (left) won a penalty for England against Scotland after her cross hit a wayward arm. © Reuters Fran Kirby (left) won a penalty for England against Scotland after her cross hit a wayward arm.

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England’s Fran Kirby fears cynical players and managers will be tempted to exploit the new handball rules to win penalties.

With intent removed from the equation, referees have no latitude if a player’s arms are not in a “natural position” – at their side or behind their back – and the appeal for teams to use this zero-tolerance policy to play for a penalty looks to be a potential consequence.

“We had a VAR meeting with Fifa referees before the game,” said Kirby, whose cross hit Scotland’s Nicola Docherty on the hand to earn England a penalty scored by Nikita Parris early in their 2-1 win in Nice on Sunday. “The referees were very clear that if your arms are not in a natural position or near your body then a penalty is going to be given. But I would like to think I’m not going to drive down the line then kick the ball against an opponent’s hand or arm because I want to get a penalty.

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“I’d like to think that’s how others feel in that moment but possibly it could happen. I don’t feel that in that split second, you’re thinking: ‘I’m going to cross it and hit her hand.’ I’m thinking: ‘Lucy Bronze is in the box and I want it to hit her head.’ My cross was intended to get on the head of one of our players so she might score.”

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Kirby did not appeal for the penalty and the referee missed the incident, only to award the spot-kick after being advised to watch a replay by the VAR official.

The Chelsea playmaker was adhering to an instruction from Phil Neville that his players do not contest refereeing decisions and treat all officials with respect.

“No one really appealed for that penalty and I just thought: ‘It’s not going to get given,’” Kirby said. “But when it went to VAR I knew it would be given, so I used the time to tell Nikita: ‘Make sure you’re ready.’ I was able to have a conversation to prepare her, knowing she’d be stepping up. A few of the girls didn’t know what was going on but I did and I got Nikita composed.”

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