By Chris Dagonas
In the Dagonas household growing up, I was the younger brother. My older brother was faster, stronger, and smarter than me for many years. Whenever we engaged in athletic competition (which we did often) I would leave my whole soul on the field of battle, and usually in defeat. Most children apply logic, or their own version of it, to pretty much every situation. Things must always be “fair”, as they understand fairness. I could always handle losing to him at basketball or baseball or whatever else, if the game was fair. But if for some reason, I felt things had been shifted in his favour and made UNFAIR (perhaps one of his friends was the referee, or he scored a basket while I was tying my shoelace, or he made some stupid, fluky play that he’d never, ever make in a million years but somehow it went in…sorry, some wounds take time) then I would lose it! I’d scream, cry, kick and punch, and vow to never play with him again! Well, that’s kind of how Canada’s soccer relationship with the United States has been, especially over the last decade or so.
It just seemed like the Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team could not catch a break on Monday. Playing against their fiercest rival, the United States of America, in the semi-finals of the Olympics, they surely knew they would be in for a difficult match. Canada is currently ranked 7th in the world by the governing body, FIFA, while the Americans are ranked first. Canada’s women’s team had NEVER beaten the American women, in over twenty matches. But this team was physical, tough, organized, and boasted Christine Sinclair, she of 140 career goals for the national team, and one of the top 3 strikers in the world. Prior to this game, American counterpart Abby Wambach (no slouch herself with 142 career goals) called Sinclair “the most under-rated player in the world.” High praise from a respected source.
So when Sinclair’s masterpiece of a goal gave Canada the early lead, hopes were high. And when the lead lasted until half-time, well now the grand upset was looking possible. (Highlights of the game can be seen here) But the Canadian soccer fan knows; these games are never over until they’re over. Just after half time, American midfielder Megan Rapinoe’s wicked corner kick snuck in between Sinclair and Canadian keeper Erin McLeod, and the Americans were back even. A real duel was on our hands here. Suddenly, and against the run of play, Sinclair climbed above everyone else and drove, just DROVE, home a header off the goal post. 2-1 Canada. But a mere two minutes later, Rapinoe again showed off her skills with what was probably the goal of the game; a right-footed blast from about 25 yards out that smashed against the post and into the Canadian net. 2-2. It’s hard to breathe just watching this all, and just when you thought the game might settle again…another Sinclair header goal! The score now sits at 3-2 Canada, with just over 10 minutes left to play. Surely the Americans can’t get another one, can they? Can they?
Well, as it turned out, they did. But before we get into that, I want to take us back to the year 2007. You remember it, right? George W. Bush was the American President, HD broadcasting was not yet widely available, and the cast members of “Jersey Shore” were not yet millionaires. But this was also the year that Canada’s Men’s National Soccer Team met the United States in the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Gold Cup is held on off years of the World Cup, and essentially decides the best team in North America (which includes the Caribbean and Central America, for soccer purposes.) In that game, the United States (which were the favourite of course) took a 2-0 lead into halftime, only to see Canada grab one in return around the 75th minute. Then, in the 93rd minute, virtually the last second, Canada scored a second goal to tie the game. Except, the referee called the goal offside. View the play here. Now, according to FIFA rules, offside cannot be called if the defending team is the last to play the ball. Clearly on this play, the American defender uses his chest to guide the ball down, and it rolls into the path of the Canadian Hutchinson, who glides it in. This is not an offside play, this is, and should have been called, a legal goal. But a poor referee decision meant that Canada had been eliminated, in very much an UNFAIR manner.
So let us return now to Monday’s game. In the 80th minute, Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod had been adjudged to be holding the ball too long. FIFA rules dictate that a keeper can hold the ball no longer than six seconds, or else they are considered to be wasting time. Now, McLeod had already kicked the ball away by the time the referee had made this ruling, which seems contrary to the spirit of the rule. Was the referee not wasting time by calling this? Indeed, this type of indiscretion is usually handled via a yellow card for the goalkeeper and a stern warning. In any case, a clear rule violation had taken place, McLeod had held the ball for longer than six seconds, and the proper call is that the Americans were given an indirect free-kick inside the penalty area. The referee went with the textbook there. Rapinoe lined up the kick, and hammered it towards a wall of Canadian players. The Canadians had lined up ten yards away, as is standard, and began charging towards the ball as soon as it was tapped towards Rapinoe. When she kicked it, it struck against the hand of Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault, at a distance of LESS THAN TEN YARDS!! With the speed on the shot and the proximity of the players, there is no way Nault could have reacted at all, let alone DELIBERATELY put her arm in the way of the shot. That word deliberately is the key one here, as you can probably tell. Law 12 of the FIFA rulebook states that is illegal if a player “handles the ball deliberately”. Only deliberate, intentional hand to ball contact is a foul, anything else is meant to be played through. The referee, however, somehow must have believed that Nault meant to use her hand to stop it, even though it had already deflected once before it even reached her! This gave USA a penalty kick, which is the closest to a sure goal as you can get in soccer. As you probably know by now, Abby Wambach scored the resulting penalty, and in overtime Alex Morgan finished the Canadians off with a fine header goal. 4-3 loss, and America’s record against Canada remains perfect. Once again, we were left on the sideline to watch our neighbours to the south celebrate victory, with the assistance of a referee.
It seems necessary here to point out that I am fiercely proud of all of our national athletes, Olympic or otherwise. They compete honourably on the world stage, and usually do so as the underdog, the surprise victor. Except in hockey, where they are usually expected to win. But for some reason, I yawn and gloss over hockey championships that seem to pile up like participation ribbons. When I am most intense, most feverish in my support for Canada, is when their team is NOT expected to win. Give me a matchup in baseball or basketball against the USA, or in soccer against Brazil or Spain, or in rugby against Australia or New Zealand, and I will don my red and white and paint my face and whoop at the screen until my lungs burst and my throat is sore. It must be the little brother in me. But this match on Monday, this defeat, though expected, just feels seedy. It feels UNFAIR, and frankly, it makes the ten year old me want to kick and scream and cry. OK, USA, you can beat us by 10 goals, you can beat us by outplaying us, or you can beat us through the magic of yet another young athletic prodigy. But not with the help of a referee’s poor decision. Not this way. It is these defeats that are toughest to swallow, and that make Canadian athletes all the more determined and hard nosed. All I know is, I wouldn’t want to be the next team (France) that has to kick off against this Canadian team. That bronze medal is as good as ours. I’ll probably skip that game.
On the plus side, after over a decade of inferiority to my big brother, after agonizing and UNFAIR defeats, I finally learned enough and got fast enough and strong enough to beat him. At which point, of course, it lost its lustre. Perhaps, over time, with plenty of hard work and determination on the part of our Canadian athletes, beating USA at soccer or basketball or baseball will become as nonchalant as beating Belarus at hockey. And then, all of those defeats will finally be put to rest.