Two views of the World Cup referee

I’ve been covering sports for almost 20 years. When you do it for that long, without taking a rooting interest in the teams you cover, the officials become just part of the scenery. You don’t write about them unless they really make headlines, a mistake is acknowledged, or they alter the outcome of a game, and even then you do so with the constant reminder that, even if an official’s call does change a game at the end, both teams had a game’s worth of opportunities to have won.

No official makes more mistakes than the teams he is working with, most of the time.

So we come to an obvious official’s error at the end of the United States’ 2-2 tie with Slovenia, a phantom foul in the box which nullified what would have been the game-winning goal. In fact, FIFA now is considering sitting the ref who blew the call, according to Yahoo! Sports.

And an entire nation is ticked at the official, and we have good reason. He was wrong. A stirring comeback, one of the great ones in our our soccer program’s history, had it wound up in victory, was foiled.

But I can’t help but come back to my usual standby position.

The U.S. should not have been in that position in the first place. It gave up two goals to Slovenia in the first half. It’s lucky to have emerged with a draw. In fact, on the fortune meter, the U.S. still has karma on its side. Yes, it is two points to the worse because of an official’s call today.

Yet it caught a break on its only goal against England. By rights, the U.S. should have walked away from that match without a point, and England with three. And it has caught another break in that England, the most talented team in its group, has forgotten that it is the most talented team in its group. The English tied Algeria today, another stroke of luck for the Americans, provided the U.S. team can beat Algeria next Wednesday, which should not be taken for granted.

If I sound a bit down on the American side, I suppose I am. It’s not for lack of talent that they are struggling. It’s because of a lack of organization. And it’s because of an inexplicable inability to address its flat starts in important international matches.

Landon Donovan, who bemoaned the snatched goal in his postgame remarks, was right when he, in almost the next breath, pointed out that the Americans can’t keep putting themselves into those situations.

So, yes. The ref blew it. But with a good chance to advance out of the group still within its grasp, the American team should count itself lucky that it hasn’t blown that chance with its own dicey play in the first two games.

Now, another view, and a view I daresay will be shared by more fans than my own. Lisa Hornung, web editor of the C-J and an enthusiastic soccer fan (and soccer ref!), weighs in from her perspective. Enjoy, and feel free to submit your own thoughts on games, World Cup experiences or anything else to ecrawford@courier-journal.com.

Being a referee is hard; I know from experience. For the last year and a half, I have been a USSF certified soccer referee. I love it. I really do. Most days.

As a fan, I never disparage referees in any sport because I know exactly how bad it sucks to be on the receiving end. But Team USA’s game this morning against Slovenia made me want to have a little talk with referee Koman Coulibaly. Mostly, I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him hard while screaming, “What were you thinking?”

And the sad part is, as of the writing of this (Friday afternoon), nobody knows what he was thinking. He won’t explain.

He started off calling a tight game (calling lots of fouls) and that’s fine. Generally, you do that when you know it’s going to be a rough one, to set the tone of the game and let the players know you aren’t going to put up with any obnoxiousness. But then he seemed to decide that fouls should only be called against the Americans. (Disclaimer: Ugh! I sound like a soccer parent. They always think you’re calling it against their team, when in reality, we really don’t care who wins or loses.) I don’t really think that Coulibaly had a bias against us, but it did come across that way.

Poor Jozy Altidore must be battered and bruised right now. He couldn’t get anywhere near the ball without a beat-down by a Slovenian player. They threw him to the ground every chance they got. And where was the foul call? Non-existent.

There were several bad decisions in the game, but the worst – and most likely to cause him some serious distress – is his disallowing Maurice Edu’s goal, which would have given USA the win. At first, I thought he disallowed it for an offside call. But there was no flag by the assistant referee, so it is believed that he disallowed it for a foul call. But Coulibaly isn’t talking. I’ve reviewed that video several times and I can’t see a foul – except for the blatant fouls by Slovenia against the USA. Slovenian Aleksandar Radosavljevic was holding Michael Bradley, but no foul was called against that guy.

Now U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Eric Wynalda is actually calling for an investigation, accusing Coulibaly of being paid off. I won’t go that far, but it happened in the NBA, so it’s possible.

Do a Google search of Komen Coulibaly and you could spend hours reading what the world has to say. Some of it is pretty entertaining.

Please remember that referees are human. There is no instant replay in soccer, and we make mistakes. He was right to ignore the anger from the players while on the field, but he should offer the fans an explaination now. At least show us what he saw, or admit he was wrong. Baseball umpire Jim Joyce showed us that a little humility goes a long way.

A few other views:

For the L.A. Times, Grahame Jones blogs that the nullified goal wasn’t the only bad call. He says the U.S. was lucky Clint Dempsey wasn’t red-carded for leading with an elbow on a header in the opening minutes. [L.A. Times]

The always great Joe Posnanski writes on the goal that wasn’t. “What made Coulibali’s Call-of-Folly so maddening is that even soccer experts could not tell us why it happened. Even an honest bad call — even Jim Joyce’s imperfect game call, for instance — is something digestible. He thought the guy was safe. OK. But this … what did he see? What mistake was made? Can a referee simply disallow a goal for fuzzy reasons only he seems to know? The world has grown used to the foggy quirks of soccer — extra time, diving, stretchers for players who immediately run back out on the pitch, calls made without explanation. But most of us are not used to these things. And, for so many, this was a lousy introduction to the fog.” [JoePosnanski.com]

USA Today reports that U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley was too upset to move on after the game. Said Bradley: “Put the game behind us? Tell me why
we would want to put this game behind us. That’s a ridiculous question.” I’ll field this one. You put it behind you because somehow, despite the team’s uninspired starts, it is fortunate enough to still be in the hunt to move on. You put it behind you because Algeria is no lock for this team. Immature comment. I understand anger, but soccer is a game of composure in tight quarters. And the U.S. is in a tight one now. [USA Today]

Funny how perspectives are different from side to side. The U.S. felt it had a win snatched from it. The Slovenians felt they let one get away. Slovenia right back Miso Brecko told Reuters news service: “We are very disappointed because we had a great chance to secure a berth in the knockout stage and we didn’t because we weren’t aggressive enough in the second half. It was like we had a mental block after the interval, we got only a point from a match we should have won and we have to live with it now.” [Reuters]

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