CanWNT: Analyzing “Those” Calls

CanadianGunners is first and foremost a blog about Arsenal FC, but as our mission states our third goal is to “promote the growth of football fandom, discussion, and culture in Canada as a whole”. Yesterday, Canada’s Women’s National team (hereafter CanWNT) did more for that aim than we could ever hope to after a stunning display of heart, resiliency, and tenacity; pushing the heavly-favoured US team to the brink of penalties before falling to a heartbreaking fourth goal by Alex Morgan deep in the 123rd minute.
Generally not a popular sport in this country, soccer (or ‘football’, as I use) was the talk of the nation as even non-fans of the sport had their attention captured by the women’s underdog heroics. Despite losing the game, CanWNT won hearts nationwide and possibly brought the most attention (and pride) to the national program since the men’s Gold Cup win in 2000.
While the quality of the Canadian performance isn’t in question, the referee’s is. The third US goal, a penalty coolly dispensed by Abby Wambach, was the result of two highly controversial decisions by Norwegian official Christiana Pedersen that put the US back in the game after Christine Sinclair’s third of the night. There was a lot of confusion from more casual observers of the game about these calls – and whether they were legitimate or not – and so today we’re going to take an in-depth look at the two calls and do a little analysis.
Call #1: Indirect free kick awarded in the box
Reason
: Canadian keeper Erin McLeod ruled to have held the ball too long.
Fifa’s official officiating document “Laws of the Game” (2012-13 edition)1 states:
“An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area, commits any of the following four offenses:
-controls the ball with his hands for more than six seconds before releasing it from his possession

The indirect free kick is taken from the place where the offence occurred.”
Analysis: Using the video player timer2, McLeod catches and falls on the ball at about 37 seconds, is on her feet at 40, and the whistle for the foul is blown at 48. Unfortunately there is a replay during the goal kick, so the exact moment of distribution isn’t seen; reasonably, I would say it’s about 46 seconds.
From possession to distribution then, is 9 seconds – a foul according to the letter of the law.
However, this is a case where the spirit of the law is lost with the literal interpretation of the rules. The rule is to ensure that the game is not unreasonably delayed, often with a view to ensure teams in the lead do not waste the opponent’s time to catch up. To deem Canada’s play as ‘time wasting’ is extremely harsh as Canada had not appeared to have been warned, nor carded, for delay tactics up to that point. There was also no indication by the flow of the game that the Canadians were looking to unduly waste the remaining ten minutes.
Personally I believe this is a shortcoming of officiating in the modern game. There is a natural inclination to believe the unfavoured team, with a lead late in the game, will unfairly waste time. While running down the clock is a natural and effective tactic for teams in that position, the interpretation that they are doing it excessively or unfairly is made far too liberally.
Conclusion: For Pedersen to call a foul on Canada in this case is an extremely harsh decision in a game where Canada had been every bit equal to the Americans in the run of play. Such a borderline call, made so late in a huge game, is an unnecessary extension of an official’s authority – and not one that should be made so heedlessly.
Call #2: Penalty awarded for handball
Reason
: Ball’s deflection off of Diana Matheson contacted by Marie-Eve Nault: ruled handball.
The rules for “handball” are perhaps one of the most frequently misquoted and misinterpreted in all of officiating. Again taken from the Laws of the Game (emphasis added):
Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the following into consideration:
-the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
-the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
-the position of the hand does not necessarily mean there is an infringement
Analysis: The indirect free kick, inside the penalty area, was about 15 yards outside the net. The minimum distance for the wall is 10 yards. Without boring you with the physics necessary to get the ball from 15 yards into the net, through at least about ten bodies, there’s one thing that we can say with reasonable certainty: somebody’s going to get in the way of that ball.
“Deliberate” is an incredibly difficult call to make in the fast-paced, split-second nature of the modern game. However, combining the short distance to the net with the pace of a ball struck by today’s players, one can quickly realize how easy it can be to inadvertently strike the ball with your hand. Human instinct after all is to turn away or protect the face when an object is hurdling towards them; even professional footballers have this instinct and will react accordingly.
In the case of CanWNT, both potential handballs against Matheson and Nault were reactionary and incidental contacts in a crowded box from short distance. The foul itself was against Nault, which is particularly hard to take as the contact was as much against her chest as it was her arm.
Conclusion: Put simply, 90% of indirect free kicks inside the 18 yard box are going to have some semblance of a handball. If you’re going to call them so easily, you might as well just award a penalty in the first place. There’s too little time and too much chaos for players to make deliberate decisions when defending an indirect free kick that is shot on target with pace.
In Sum
Canadians are going feel pretty strongly about the refereeing decisions going “against” them. However, that does slightly mask the fact that Canada did not manage to defend three separate leads, that they looked sloppy in extra time as the legs got heavy, and that the US would have probably had the advantage in penalties due to their experience (WWC2011) anyway. The US were worthy winners on the night and Canadians should fully congratulate the USWNT on their own resiliency in a game where Canada just wouldn’t quit.
But Canadians do have every right to feel aggrieved with the poor calls made by Christiana Pedersen in what was otherwise a memorable night for Canadian sport as a whole. Unfortunately we’ll never know what could have been with a little more sensible officiating.
Sources
1: FIFA Laws of the Game 2012-2013
2: Full event replay via CTVOlympics.ca
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