Until last night, I’ve never particularly cared about a soccer match. And, to be perfectly honest, I almost didn’t watch the women’s Olympic semi-final between the USA and Canada, despite having an acquaintance on Team Canada and being Canadian myself. (That, right there, is full disclosure. Yes, I’m clearly biased.)
Why bother, I thought before the game started. The Americans are just too good.
I changed my mind shortly after kick-off and turned the game on, unable to resist. And when Canada’s Christine Sinclair scored the first goal of the game in the first half against not only Canada’s biggest rivals, but also the best team in women’s soccer, I suddenly found myself caring about the sport. And when she kept on scoring throughout the game, earning a hat-trick, I found myself really, really caring.
And, yet, every time the Americans leveled the score – largely thanks to some truly amazing shots by Megan Rapinoe – that old pessimistic feeling flooded me. It’s over, I’d think. Only to be proved wrong again. And then again. It was exhilarating and by the time the game went into overtime with the board reading 3-3, I was shouting for victory.
But it was not to be. The last minute of overtime saw the excellent U.S. forward Alex Morgan nail a header straight into the Canadian goal. The final score of an undeniably tense game was 4-3, sending the U.S. to the finals for their third consecutive Olympics.
That’s not to say it was an equal game. There’s no denying that there were questionable calls in favor of the U.S. by the Norwegian referee, Christiana Pedersen. Among other things, the decision to award the U.S. a free kick because Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod held the ball for more than six seconds was a blow. Yes, it’s technically against the rules, but it’s consistently done and it’s unheard of to penalize a team for it. (Even U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage said it was a call she had “never seen before.”) That kick led to a penalty shot for the U.S., which led to a goal. That goal took the game into overtime where the U.S. conquered.
After the game Sinclair told reporters, “We feel like we didn’t lose, we feel like it was taken away from us.” That feeling was echoed, repeatedly, by commentators, spectators, coaches and me, heart-broken, sitting in my living room.
Sure, every player and sports fan knows that bad calls and misguided refs are an unfortunate and undeniable part of the game. But Canada, as they often are when competing against the U.S., were the underdogs — and there’s something particularly unjust about suspect calls against the little guy. Last night, Canada came ready to win and throughout the entire game, save for that last minute, we were either leading or tied. Would Team Canada have won if there had been a different referee? It’s impossible to know and, anyway, it doesn’t really matter.
While I respectfully disagree with my colleague Sean Gregory, who covered the game from Manchester and wrote that the match “got the ending it so deserved,” I do know that the game was bigger than the final score. Anyone who watched can agree they saw an amazing game. It’s hard to recall the last time that women’s soccer was so meaningful, so celebrated, so cared about, on either side of the border. And now the U.S. has another chance for a gold medal. Canada has a chance for the bronze, a new hero in Christine Sinclair and a game they can be proud of. And I can be certain that I’ll be caring about soccer from now on.