We need to talk about this Canada/U.S. women’s Olympic soccer game.
Now that may not be the most glamorous way to begin an article, but it’s the way my opening needs to be in order to make people understand; after all, I am a Canadian first and a Hoya Paranoia writer second.
For those that weren’t aware, the Americans – the #1 ranked women’s soccer team in the world – faced the Canadians – ranked #7 – in the semi-finals of the Olympic tournament on Monday, with a place in the finals against World Cup holders Japan on the line. The US has historically owned its northern rivals, losing only three of 51 previous matchups, with the Canadians’ last victory coming back in 2001. But this sounds like a preview, and chances are that if you’re reading this, you already know what happened.
The United States’ 4-3 extra-time victory was, above all else, an outstanding soccer game, one that will hopefully raise interest and viewership for the upcoming 2015 World Cup in Canada. Both teams played extremely well, and their countries should be proud. But, as is often the case in sports, there is a dark cloud of controversy hovering over the Americans’ victory, as a couple of successive favorable calls led to the tying (3-3) goal that allowed the U.S. to take the game to extra time and eventually triumph.
Obviously, the Olympics is a time for fans to tune into sports that they’ve rarely watched before, and this means that in times like these, casual fans (or even non-fans) become self-proclaimed experts. They claim to understand things that go beyond the basics, and that involves nuances that even the best commentators and analysts on the planet occasionally miss. Now I don’t care if you dismiss my argument as “sour grapes,” because it’s true that if this was a Hungary-Lichtenstein Lawn Bowling match I likely wouldn’t be so outraged as to write this piece.
But I’m not here to tell you that the Norwegian referee was biased, or that the match was fixed, or that the outcome was predetermined. (That’s just what the Canadian players are claiming.) But I am here to tell you that she made two incorrect calls of the most crucial variety, on one of the biggest stages, at one of the worst possible times.
1) The Six-Second Rule
In the 78th minute, referee Christina Pederson awarded an indirect free kick inside the Canadian penalty area to the United States, adjudging Canadian keeper Erin McLeod of time wasting. Now, as the traditionalists would say, the official FIFA rules do state: “Goalkeepers are not permitted to keep possession of the ball in their hands for more than six seconds.” That said, I think any frequent soccer/football watcher would agree with me in saying that this rule is never actually applied.
If you don’t believe me, esteemed NBC soccer writer Steve Davis wrote, “I’ve watched more professional soccer matches than I can possibly count. (Best, ridiculously wild-ass guess: somewhere north of 2,000.) I have never – no exaggeration here, never – seen that called.” Therefore, the first argument against this call would be that you don’t enforce a rule that hasn’t been enforced in recent memory in the semi-finals of a major tournament.
The second argument would be that if you do, it had better be because the goalkeeper is intentionally wasting time, which, it’s pretty clear by watching the video, she is not doing.
Finally, it is widely considered – reasonably so - that the time the goalie spends on the ground while waiting for the opposing players to exit the box doesn’t count towards the six seconds. As McLeod herself stated, “The referee said I had the ball for ten seconds. She obviously counted the time when I was on the ground with the ball. Once I got to my feet I calculate I only had the ball for five seconds.”
I’ve heard the objection that McLeod may have been warned at halftime about time-wasting behavior, but in practice a warning is a yellow card. A casual “Hey nice half, by the way make sure you don’t hold onto the ball too long” doesn’t quite make for justification in my books. So that’s that.
2) The Hand Ball
On the resulting free kick, the ball was driven into the arm of Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault, at which point the referee awarded a penalty kick to the Americans, which Abby Wambach netted, tying the game. The most common reaction seems to have been “Well, the ball touched her arm, so clearly that’s a hand ball,” which frankly makes me ashamed to be a North American soccer fan. In fact, the matter is quite a bit more complex.
The official FIFA rules state: “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee shall take the following into consideration: a) the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand), b) the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball), c) position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.”
First off, it’s pretty clear from the replay that the defender’s touching of the ball with her arm was not deliberate, as her arm was in front of her chest, meaning the shot would have been blocked either way. Second, the ball may have come from 10 or more meters away, but the shot was blasted and may have been deflected, meaning that it was very much in fact an “unexpected ball.” Finally, since much of this is discretionary, one most consider the reasoning behind the handball rule. Soccer is a game played with the feet, and one shouldn’t be able to use one’s hand intentionally to score or prevent a goal. Considering the factors I previously mentioned, it’s clear Nault did no such thing. As such, the call absolutely shouldn’t have been made.
I’m not sure what possessed the Norwegian referee to make these calls, especially the goalkeeper violation. Maybe it was a sense of purist duty, maybe an unawareness of soccer norms. More likely, I think this was a combination of the two.
I believe it was a woman who dreamed of making a bold decision in the interest of maintaining judicial integrity, unaware of the backlash it would cause; it was a referee wanting to steal a bit of the spotlight that would normally be shined solely upon the players.
Of course, that is all speculation. All I can confirm is that two great teams played their hearts out on Monday night in Manchester, and one of them deserved a better fate. Hopefully the 2015 World Cup will provide the stage for an epic rematch.