Many were surprised -– and Canadians were outraged –- that Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen awarded the USA an indirect free kick because Canadian keeper Erin McLeod took more than six seconds to release the ball.
The free kick led to a hand-ball call that gave the USA the penalty kick Abby Wambach converted to tie the game 3-3 in the 80th minute and enabled the Americans to defeat Canada in overtime.
“We feel like it was taken from us,” said Canada captain Christine Sinclair, who scored all three of her team’s goals. “We feel cheated.”
“We feel like we got robbed in this game,” said McLeod.
It’s easy to feel for Sinclair, coming out on the losing end after such a terrific individual performance. But it’s McLeod who’s to blame.
She took at least 11 seconds -- from the time she got to her feet -- to punt the ball into play. Based on that alone, the call was correct.
Critics of the decision are saying it was inappropriate because they hadn’t seen such an infraction punished before. That’s certainly not Pedersen’s fault. The only question for Pedersen is why she didn’t make the call earlier.
On five occasions, beginning in the fourth minute of the game, McLeod held the ball for more than 15 seconds, well over twice the permitted time. In the 58th minute she held the ball for 17 seconds, in the 59th for 12 seconds, in the 61st for 16 seconds, in the 68th for 11 seconds.
It's reasonable to assume that Pedersen believed she finally had to take action late in the game as McLeod delayed play once again with the USA behind a goal in the 77th minute. It's also reasonable to expect an Olympic goalkeeper to be familiar with the rules. (And Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported that McLeod admitted she was warned by an assistant referee at halftime.)
Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about this if the ensuing indirect free kick hadn’t struck Marie-Eve Nault’s arm, forcing Pedersen to make one of the referee’s most difficult calls: Was it a deliberate handball?
It would take a mind-reader to know if Nault deliberately handled the ball. FIFA’s rulebook guidelines instruct the referee to take into consideration “the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)” and “the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball).”
On the second point, Nault would have expected the ball to come her way because she was standing in front of a free kick. On the first point, her hand did move toward the ball.
The biggest problem with Pedersen’s PK call –- and a reason to sympathize with Nault –- is that had she not raised her arm she would have gotten blasted in the chest. A case can be made that she was punished for protecting herself. That, however, is not something referees, according to the FIFA Rulebook, are supposed to take into consideration.
So if there is injustice in the call, it’s the rulebook’s fault and not Pedersen’s.