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Don't Fight The Laws: THE CALL


I used to do this semi-regular feature, in which I'd answer questions from readers about the Laws of the Game and their application in real-life situations. The questions trailed off a bit, my interest waned a bit, and the feature seemed to have disappeared.

But there was one call -- THE CALL -- in Monday's Olympic semifinal that absolutely needs clarification, not just because it befuddled 99% of the viewing audience, but because incorrect explanations were subsequently provided by various media sources.

By way of background, I've been a certified referee for over 12 years, and while I've never gone beyond local competitive and recreational games, suffice to say I've developed a pretty good working relationship with the FIFA Laws of the Game in that time.

So, without further ado, the question I'll ask myself on behalf of everyone who scratched their heads while watching the game: What, exactly, was the call the ref made when the USA was awarded an indirect free kick inside Canada's penalty area late in the second half? And if an infringement occurred, was the referee correct to award that indirect free kick?
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The Olympics have a funny way of making everyone in the world an expert on the intricacies of sports that they'd never seen or heard of before the Olympics began. Soccer, of course, is no different. Within minutes of Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen's contentious decision, social media erupted with alternate explanations as to how she should have handled the situation. Many explanations bore no resemblance to anything written in the Laws of the Game; but hey, Twitter is no place for fact-checking.

Now, whatever Pedersen's failings in the game as a whole, whatever poor decisions she may have made (including the penalty kick awarded to the USA immediately following the indirect free kick) and whatever undue influence she may have had over the outcome of the hard-fought contest, one thing must be made clear. And as an unabashedly hyper-partisan Canadian fan, it pains me somewhat to admit this, but in the interest of the facts, it needs to be said.

By the letter of the law -- certainly not the spirit, and certainly not according to the standard set by nearly every other professional game officiated at any level, including Pedersen herself in that very same game, but by the absolute, black-and-white, as-it's-written letter of the FIFA Laws of the Game -- the call was entirely correct.

According to Law 12, the goalkeeper must release the ball from their hands within six seconds of taking control of it. Pretty straightforward. The keeper is considered to still be in control of the ball while bouncing it, so the six seconds continue to tick (and an attacker is not permitted to steal the ball away from them) in this case. In the event that the keeper doesn't release the ball within six seconds, the opposing team is awarded an indirect free kick from the spot where the infringement occurred.

Now, no highlight package I've been able to find includes the entirety of Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod's time handling the ball in this instance. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that after corralling the ball off a USA corner kick and going to ground, she did indeed control it for longer than six seconds. Let's also take as read the fact that the referee -- in an absolutist, by-the-book sense -- was within her right to award the indirect free kick to the USA.

This is where we tread into dangerous, subjective territory -- the "spirit" of the law, if you will. The six-second rule exists, as you'd imagine, to discourage goalkeepers from wasting time when their team is ahead. After all, if this rule or some variation didn't exist, a goalkeeper could theoretically just hold onto the ball for 40 minutes, with the opponents unable to do much about it, short of drop-kicking them in the chest. So within the "spirit of the law", the referee needs to be under the impression that the keeper is attempting to unfairly waste time by maintaining possession for more than six seconds.

Is that what McLeod was doing in this case? She didn't think so. Canadian head coach John Herdman didn't think so. But Pedersen did.

Beyond that, we have other factors that go into any referee's decision (even though, in an absolutist, by-the-book interpretation of the world, they're not supposed to): circumstances and precedent. All sports fans know that what gets called in the first minute of a game isn't the same as what's going to get called in the last minute of a game. Referees, being human, are inexorably influenced by the context of the game, the crowd and any other number of factors. And I don't use the word "influenced" here to suggest any sort of malfeasance; rather, I'm saying that to expect human referees to operate as rule-processing automatons simply isn't realistic.

In this regard, fans generally expect that officials will, to some extent, "swallow their whistles" late in games, or in games of massive significance. We're often told that no one wants referees to have an impact on the outcome of the game -- this line of thinking is, of course, ridiculous. Referees always have an impact on the outcome of any game; what people mean is that when everything is on the line, they'd rather see the referee not make a call than make one.

That applies exponentially so in this case, when we consider the issue of precedent. The next time you're watching a game, at any level, count the seconds that either goalkeeper controls the ball with their hands. Chances are, you'll get past six on multiple occasions. But you're not going to see those goalkeepers punished, even if their team is winning. The fact of the matter is, the rule is so rarely enforced that many long-time fans of the game admitted on Monday that they didn't even know it existed.

But then, ignorance of any law is no defence, ultimately. Which is why, by the way, I'd like to take a moment to dispel a couple of myths that are circulating about the rule:
  • Myth: The referee was compelled to warn McLeod about time-wasting before enforcing the six-second rule. Nowhere in the Laws of the Game is it stated that the referee is under any obligation to do this. From a game-management standpoint, it's in their best interest to do so, perhaps, but it is not required.
  • Myth: The punishment should have been a yellow card, and McLeod should have retained possession of the ball. If McLeod had been taking a goal kick, and had been wasting time before taking it, the referee would have been within her right to show a yellow card for unsporting behaviour, whereupon McLeod would then still take the goal kick. But this is a different situation, one that's explicitly spelled out in the Laws of the Game.

None of any of this is any consolation to players and fans still seething at the call, and at Pedersen's performance in general. While human officials have their flaws, one of the ostensible benefits is that they are capable of applying the rules of a sport in such a way that takes into consideration such issues as the spirit of the rule, the circumstances of the game and precedent. Suffice to say, that did not take place in this case.

If nothing else, this incident proved that it is entirely possible for a referee's decision to simultaneously be technically correct and dead wrong.

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