To illustrate this I'll use as examples two games from the 2012 Olympics and one from a World Cup over a decade ago. Though only three they were big games in big tournaments and in each poor decisions by refs, decisions that seem inexplicable, played major roles in gaining the Americans their wins.
The first game goes all the way back to 1999 at what was a seminal women's soccer event, the 1999 Women's World Cup, held in the U.S. and the first time women really hit the world stage in the game. The second was in the semi-final of these 2012 Summer Olympics and the third was in the final. Their opponents in these games were, in order, China, Canada and Japan, and the offending refs were from Switzerland, Norway and Germany.
1999 Women's World Cup: U.S. over China
The first example is one of the bigger World Cup travesties ever. It occurred at the Rose Bowl in California in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and China. The game was the most-attended women’s sporting event ever and remains so to this date, with over 90,000 fans. It was hyped as a showdown between the political systems of the two countries and it went to a shootout. The U.S. won 1-0 and Brandy Chastain famously pulled off her shirt to reveal her sports bra after scoring the winning shootout goal.
On the save that U.S. goalie Briana Scurry made on Liu Ying’s penalty shot to set up the win, she dramatically cut down the angle by moving forward
, doing so long before Liu kicked the ball. She does it for every shooter but it is the most blatant against Liu; indeed, she moved so far off the line, cutting the angle down so much, it would be difficult not to stop the ball. Somehow Scurry's 'save' stood, a shocking abdication of the rules that took credibility away from the result.
Back home, Liu was vilified in the Chinese press, her family was even questioned about the miss by strangers, fans who could not understand Liu's failure. But, as American writer Gay Talese, who went to China to interview Liu and write about it, discovered, the Chinese press, and subsequently the country, soon realized they had been robbed of a chance to win and came to see the play as the Americans cheating. The referee was Switzerland’s Nicole Petignat and to my knowledge she never explained why she allowed the goal to stand.
2012 Summer Olympics: Two tainted wins
The next example has been well documented. A bizarre decision by the referee to intrude into the game and call Canadian goalie Erin McLeod for taking to much time to kick the ball, this with 12 minutes left and Canada leading, 3-2 in the Olympic semi-final earlier this week. It is a decision that is virtually never made, many in the game spoke of not once
seeing it called over long careers. To have it turn up in a game of such import is unprecedented.
Further, the count
for that rule is not to begin until the goalie looks down field, the initial moments when the keeper gathers the ball should not even be counted toward the six seconds he or she has to distribute it. But over a few seconds, extra seconds also taken at least twice by the American goalie in the game, Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen gave the Americans a glorious scoring opportunity by awarding a kick just outside the Canadian box.
To make this decision even more suspect, American striker Abby Wambach stood next to the ref and counted the seconds McLeod held the ball, trying to induce Pedersen to make the call. That action should have been cause for Pedersen to remind Wambach who was reffing, not do as she wanted. The decision was made worse when the ensuing kick struck Canada's Marie-Eve Nault on the arm, an obvious case of 'ball to hand,' not called for a handball in soccer. But Pedersen mistakenly gave the U.S. a penalty shot and the game was tied.
Japan vs. U.S.: no penalty shot awarded
In the American's 2-1 win over Japan in the Olympic final on Thursday we find our third example of their getting a controversial, and highly incorrect, decision from a ref that allowed them to win. In that final there was a clear handball
in the U.S. box when American defender Tobin Heath went 'hand to ball', thrusting out her arm like a first baseman making a catch, to block the ball.
Any level of ref could have seen that the play was clear grounds for a penalty shot, and yet it was not called by the German ref Bibiana Steinhaus. She waved play on despite the obvious infraction, tainting the game, tainting still another major victory by the Americans. Further, as in the other cases, she deprived the U.S. of the opportunity to win without help. True greatness in sport is achieved, never given.
FIFA and women's soccer
It is in fact difficult to explain any of these games adequately. Poor reffing happens but these all involved the same winning team in arguably the three most important games in women's soccer history. Was it corruption? Or because FIFA wants the U.S. to succeed to raise the women's game in that country? Those suppositions seem far-fetched.
Did Pedersen, who missed many calls and whose experience in the Norwegian women's league hasn't prepared her for the speed and physicality of championship play, have a bias because the American's Swedish manager formerly coached in Norway? Maybe the refs were somehow intimidated, certainly in the China game it would have been difficult for Petignat to call back that goal in front of so many American fans. Or maybe it's simpler, maybe each momentarily lost her cool or they are all just bad referees, illustrated best by Steinhaus calling "play on" when a textbook case of handball occurred right in front of her.
Whatever caused them, the incidents take something from each U.S. win and unhappily they did not react with class and acknowledge the leg-up they received, choosing instead to act as if they fully deserved their victories. They may cite that sports cliche that 'good teams make their breaks' but these weren't breaks but takes, refs taking from their opponents a level playing field. Players should decide the game, not the officials, and while obviously the U.S. had to take the results, they should have acknowledged what transpired.
So the U.S. women's soccer team has had at least three benefactors running alongside them - Petignat, Pedersen and Steinhaus. Given that, besides ensuring that their refs can handle the high-level of play in championship games, FIFA needs to make certain that in future the American's opposition need only beat the American players.
If they do not then we can assume that FIFA loves the U.S. women's soccer team.