The game-winning goal sails over Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod, center, as defenders Carmelina Moscato, left, and Rhian Wilkinson (7) and USA forward Abby Wambach (14) watch during extra time of the women’s semifinal soccer match at the 2012 Summer Olympics Monday in London. USA won 4-3.
The critical, controversial call that helped the U.S. women’s soccer team score the tying goal in its overtime victory over Canada may not have been wrong, but that does not mean it was right, either.
Referee Christiana Pedersen’s ruling that the Canadian goalkeeper had been wasting time, giving an indirect free kick to the Americans, was one that many veteran players and coaches say they have never seen, and many described it as baffling.
Even soccer governing bodies advise using extreme caution when making such a call.
With Canada leading, 3-2, in the 78th minute Monday, Pedersen ruled that Canada’s goalkeeper, Erin McLeod, held the ball for more than six seconds after making a save. The ensuing free kick led to a penalty kick in what turned out to be a 4-3 win for the Americans.
The rule in question falls under Law 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game. FIFA’s official interpretation of that law includes a notation that states “a goalkeeper is not permitted to keep control of the ball in his hands for more than six seconds.”
But U.S. Soccer, the English Football Association and other governing bodies have emphasized to referees that the rule is discretionary, and is not meant to be called except for egregious violations.
On the play, according to The New York Times, McLeod caught a corner kick, fell to the grass, got up after about four seconds, then punted the ball away 10 or 11 seconds later. Other accounts of the match had McLeod releasing the ball after about eight seconds.
Either way, Pedersen had already blown the whistle — too soon, according to some interpretations.
The six-second count is supposed to begin not from the moment the goalkeeper first gains possession of the ball, but after she gathers herself, gets up and begins to look for a teammate to play it to, as U.S. Soccer notes in its advice to referees:
“Infringement of the six-second rule is sometimes misinterpreted,” the federation noted in its Ask a Referee online column. “The count starts when the goalkeeper is preparing to release the ball, not when he or she actually gains possession. Why? Because very often the goalkeeper has to disentangle him-/herself from other players or move around fallen players, and it would be unfair to begin the count in such a case.”
But such minute distinctions are secondary to the overriding principle emphasized to referees: to not blow the whistle for offenses deemed trifling.
“Technically the goalkeeper must release the ball within six seconds of having established full control, which would not count rising from the ground or stopping their run (if they had to run) to gain the ball,” U.S. Soccer noted. “However, goalkeepers throughout the world routinely violate the six-second rule without punishment if the referee is convinced that the goalkeeper is making a best effort.”
Moreover, U.S. Soccer advised referees in a 2010 memorandum, “Before penalizing a goalkeeper for violating this time limit, the referee should warn the goalkeeper about such actions and then should penalize the violation only if the goalkeeper continues to waste time or commits a comparable infringement again later in the match.”
Was McLeod making a best effort? Pedersen has not said; requests from newspapers and television in her native Norway to interview her were turned down because she is prohibited by FIFA from speaking to reporters without the world body’s permission.
Certainly McLeod did hold the ball for about 12 seconds after gaining possession on two separate occasions, in both the 58th minute and the 61st. But even in those cases, she appeared to be making an honest effort to find a player to whom she could send a pass.
Nevertheless, the Americans’ Abby Wambach was in Pedersen’s ear, doing what many players do when their team is losing: audibly counting down the seconds after the opposing goalkeeper gets hold of the ball to pressure the keeper to give up the ball, or the referee to make the six-second call.
“I wasn’t yelling; I was just counting,” Wambach said Tuesday in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “Probably did it five to seven times.”
In the 78th minute, Wambach said, she did it again, and this time Pedersen bit.
“I got to 10 seconds right next to the referee, and at 10 seconds she blew the whistle,” she said.
Referees usually give warnings before issuing cautions for time-wasting, but Pedersen seems not to have done so on the pivotal call.
McLeod said she was informally warned by an assistant referee at halftime.
“She said, `Don’t delay the play too much,’ but it wasn’t like a real warning,” McLeod said. McLeod added that on the critical call, Pedersen told her that “I held the ball for 10 seconds — she obviously counted the time when I was on the ground.”
The National Post of Canada asked McLeod whether she had indeed held the ball that long.
“Nowhere near,” McLeod said. “I think the referee was very one-sided. I was stunned when it happened.”
She added: “I have never known this to happen in a game before. It was an interesting decision. Referees never make this kind of decision.”
Canada’s coach, John Herdman, noted that it wasn’t as if McLeod “purposely tried to slow the game down, where you see goalkeepers really cheating — she wasn’t doing that.” He said McLeod was simply waiting for her fullbacks to get into position for a short outlet.
One reason referees do not whistle the six-second rule is because the penalty is so harsh: an indirect free kick from the spot of the violation, inside the penalty area. Several hundred games can go by without an indirect free kick being awarded inside a penalty area.
Almost invariably, when goalkeepers are cautioned for time-wasting, it happens during a goal kick. That way, the referee can give a yellow card to the keeper, who then simply takes the goal kick, so that the match itself is not affected.
FIFA added the six-second rule to Law 12 in 1998, but it has always been seen as a guideline more than as a hard-and-fast regulation, and not to be invoked unless there is an egregious violation.
“If a goalkeeper takes six, seven or eight seconds when there is no evidence of deliberate time-wasting, why spoil the game when there is no need to?” as an Indiana soccer referees federation noted. “It’s very much like the leeway given when a throw-in is taken. We would not expect every throw-in to be taken on the exact blade of grass.”
A BBC article even suggested that the six-second rule be done away with entirely. “No referees adhere to it anyway,” the former Hearts and Dundee United defender Allan Preston said. “We don’t want a keeper standing with the ball for more than a minute, but it doesn’t get used. Sometimes you see it getting used at the start of the season, but apart from that, you never see a ref pulling up a goalkeeper for holding on to the ball for longer than six seconds.”
Pedersen’s six-second call was not even the decision that most outraged Herdman, the Canada coach. Rather, it was the handball awarded on the subsequent indirect free kick, when Megan Rapinoe’s hard, close-range shot struck two Canadians in the arms and hands.
Under the sport’s rules, if a player has no time to move her hands out of the way, no handball foul is to be given.
“When a ball is struck at that pace. ...” Herdman said after the match, and trailed off without completing the thought.
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