Canada 3, USA 3, Referee 1
The Americans have an array of weapons up front, and deployed them relentlessly. Playmaker Megan Rapinoe repeatedly fed arguably the world’s best female striker, Abby Wambach.
Meanwhile the Canadians, with the stalwart and underrated Diana Matheson patrolling the midfield and arguably an even better female striker in Christine Sinclair, battled ahead for the lead three times, then succumbed to a never-say-die American powerhouse in the very last moments of play.
That’s the story they’re telling in the American media today, carefully sidestepping the fact that the American team was the Goliath to the Canadians’ David. There also carefully omitting that the final scoreline was Canada 3, USA 3, Referee 1.
With Canada ahead by a goal and ten minutes of the game remaining, the ref made two game-changing calls. First, she whistled for an indirect free kick when the Canadian keeper delayed the game; second, she called for a penalty when a Canadian handled the ball in the box. The Americans converted the kick and went on to win the game in extra time after a half hour of extra time.
The referee, Christina Pedersen, is highly experienced. She appears disinterested – she’s from Norway. She has reffed world cup games as well as other Olympic games. Her credentials are top-notch. Both of those calls, however, were anything but. The first was doubtful at best, and the other almost unprecedented in high-level soccer.
Let’s start with the less controversial call, the penalty. There’s no question that the ball struck Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault’s hand; it was drilled at the Canadian wall from short-range, and caromed off another defender before hitting Nault. It’s a classic case of “ball-to-hand”, a fine difference that makes a distinction between a player redirecting the ball with her hand, deliberately or accidentally, and the ball striking a player in the arm before the player can react. The distinction is most often made when the player’s hand is in front of her body, which Nault’s indisputably was. The ref knew the penalty call would alter the outcome of the match, but called it anyway.
This call is made even more questionable by the fact that a handball by American midfielder Megan Rapinoe in the United States penalty area had gone uncalled approximately 15 minutes earlier. Unlike Nault, Rapinoe’s arm was not tucked in and was extended away from her body. Arguably the missed call on Rapinoe was a more egregious foul than the call that went against Nault.
Still, while it’s rare, but refs can make bad calls like that sometimes. The ball is round, as they say. The other call, the delay of game ruling, was unspeakable.
The way refs deal with keepers who delay the game is this; the keeper has six seconds from the point where she picks up the ball to where she releases it (usually by kicking it upfield). If the keeper lingers with the ball, the ref typically cautions her at least once, usually multiple times. If the keeper persists, the ref stops play, pulls a yellow card on the keeper, and then allows play to continue.
Did Erin MacLeod, a veteran international player, hold the ball for more than six seconds? Yes. Repeatedly? Yes. But so did Hope Solo at the other end of the field. Neither keeper was noticeably cautioned at any point during the game.
And while MacLeod was in the act of kicking the ball–that is, getting play underway again–the referee decided to throw the rulebook out completely and make a call that no one outside of high school intramural league play has seen, ever. She awarded the Americans an indirect free kick at the point where MacLeod kicked the ball. A minute later, the ball was in the back of the Canadian net.
It’s hard to overstate how ridiculous Pedersen’s call was. Never mind that she ignored many instances of grappling, climbing, and spiking at both ends of the field. Never mind that the American star, Abby Wambach, manhandled her markers repeatedly in the box (and was frustrated each time, only scoring on the dubious penalty kick).
No, the referee took it on herself to deliberately alter the outcome of the match, to the benefit of a highly favoured American team that was on the verge of losing to these upstart Canadians, who had already eliminated the Great Britain side from the tournament.
Why would Pedersen do that? To ensure a few more seats were filled in Wembley, knowing that a USA-Japan gold medal match would draw many times what a Canada-Japan final would?
It’s dangerous to play the conspiracy card. We are all biased. We all want our team to win. And we all want to believe that the best team does win, that medals are awarded to those who earned them. That, after all, is what the Olympics are supposed to be about, however naive that sounds. But what are the alternatives? That we label her as an incompetent ref? She isn’t. That she was overtaken by temporary insanity? Unlikely. It’s a lot easier to believe that the ref was bought off than that her calls were made honestly and in good faith.
Yes, the ball is round, and everything else is pure theory. But whatever the outcome in the final, the Americans’ medal will always have an asterisk beside it.
* Canada 3, USA 3, Referee 1.