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Canada's former FIFA referee says controversial calls come with repercussions

Winnipegger Hector Vergara poses with a replica of the World Cup trophy and a soccer ball from his personal collection on Monday Jan. 7, 2001 in Winnipeg.

Brian Donogh/CP

Hector Vergara, one of Canada's most accomplished soccer officials, knows from experience that making a controversial call in a major game comes with repercussions.

He was an assistant referee at the Club World Championship in 2005 in Japan in front of 70,000 people, responsible mainly for making offside calls. Sao Paolo was playing Liverpool.

Sao Paolo scored after a shot that some people may have thought was offside. Vergara deemed that it was not.

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During the second half, he disallowed three goals for Liverpool, for balls he ruled were offside by less than a foot. And Liverpool lost the game 1-0 – and the Club World Championship at the same time.

The reaction was swift and ugly. Vergara, who had been writing a blog about his experiences, had to shut it down because "the comments from English fans were not appropriate," he said.

Still, other Liverpudlians sent him e-mails, saying they realized that he was officiating at an emotional game, and they were indeed upset at the turn of events, but really, Vergara's calls were correct.

Vergara spent 19 years on the FIFA referees' list, and was involved in 11 FIFA competitions, including the semi-finals of the 2004 Athens Olympics, and three World Cups in 2002, 2006 and 2010. He has officiated almost 150 international matches. Because he is currently a member of FIFA's referees' committee, he cannot comment on the actions of referees at Monday's U.S.-Canada Olympic women's semi-final.

"No referee in the world wants to make a mistake," said Vergara, who was not indicating that Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen made mistakes in two controversial calls that resulted in the U.S. women's soccer team defeating Canada 4-3 on Monday.

Pedersen called for a penalty over a delay-of-game call (as goalkeeper Erin McLeod was said to have held the ball for more than six seconds), or another free kick soon afterward for an illegal "handball" when the ball struck a Canadian player on the arm as her U.S. opponent was trying to play that penalty kick.

"Believe me, there are mistakes in this game," Vergara said. "And I tell you, there are referee mistakes in every game in every sport every day." Referees, he said, have to make split-second calls, without benefit of replay.

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Canadian team members have criticized the Olympic referee for awarding a free kick after she ruled that McLeod held the ball illegally for more than six seconds before putting it into play – a delay-of-game faux pas.

The Canadians were shocked that the rarely-if-ever used rule was summoned, expecting the referee to issue a yellow card first. McLeod said that an assistant referee had issued her a previous warning at the start of the second half, but that even so, she thought it was a vague warning to keep the game going.

U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage added to the furor by saying she had never seen a call like it.

And immediately afterward, Pedersen also levied a penalty kick for a handball call against Canadian player Marie-Eve Nault who had thrown her hands in front of herself in protective mode when the ball struck her arm.

The handball rule is one of the most misunderstood of all FIFA rules because it's up for interpretation. FIFA Law 12 says a player may not handle the ball deliberately, touching the ball anywhere from fingertip to shoulder.

But the FIFA rules don't stipulate that unintentional handling of the ball is an infraction. Therefore, FIFA offers interpretations of this rule, saying that if the hand moves to the ball, then the handling of the ball is likely intentional. If the ball moves toward the hand, not so much. A handball coming from a close play is considered more accidental than a strike by a ball coming from afar, because the player would have time to move out of the way.

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The law also gives the referee full discretion on how to interpret it.

And a referee has to see it. The Canadian players complained that the calls were one-sided all along, and that the officials missed a handball call when the ball struck American Megan Rapinoe in the arm about 10 minutes earlier.

"It's not an easy call," Vergara said. He says refereeing is a game of angles. "If you don't have the right angle [of view] you may not get the call right, no matter how hard you run and how hard you try to be at the right angle. Sometimes players get in front of you."

As for the delay-of-play, the rules specifically state a player cannot hold onto a ball for more than six seconds when putting it back into play. "But sometimes there's some common sense that has to go with it and spirit of the game," Vergara said. "We have to use the same laws but at the same time, there has to flexibility within the laws to have a little more common sense."

There are 43 Canadians officiating at the London Games in 23 sports. There were two Canadians involved as soccer referees, but Vergara said they returned home after the quarter-finals.

Any high-level official who makes a mistake, said Vergara, takes it to heart. "I've seen fellow referees' lives destroyed because of a call they made on the field at the highest level – to the point that they've taken to drinking, or they've taken to other things, because they feel that badly about it."

Mistakes are part of the game because humans are fallible, Vergara said. "But if there were mistakes made yesterday, that referee is going to have to live with those mistakes for a long time. And it's not going to be easy."

What's it like to work as a referee at the Olympic level? Our expert takes your questions.

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