World Cup 2010: US 2 – Slovenia 2
I missed the second half of this game because I was watching the Tour de Suisse racing through my home town. In catching up on the news, I discovered the the U.S. had been robbed of a game-winning goal! Or so Facebook and Reddit told me. A search for videos on YouTube turned up several links to videos showing the goal in question: the play was not offsides and no U.S. player committed a foul (to the contrary, it was the Slovenians who were all over the U.S. players).
It seemed quite clear-cut: the U.S. indeed had been robbed of a goal.
However, it’s not up to the players to question the referees, no matter how badly they think they’ve called the game. There are, in fact, FIFA rules against this and most players are clever enough to realize that, should they wish to continue playing in the most prestigious soccer tournament in the world, they’d better just keep their opinions to themselves and let others comment on the officiating. If they don’t, they run the risk of being barred from further participation and/or fined.
There are always those players who simply know when they’re right and when they’ve been wronged. In that case, the rules clearly can’t apply to them, since they’ll be vindicated by the objective evidence. The blog post, Why I Hate Landon Donovan by Ken Silverstein (Harper's), showed up the next morning, detailing just such a case. It’s not the first time that Landon Donovan can’t keep his opinions to himself, despite what are probably desperate efforts from team management to get him to do so. As detailed in the article, Donovan: U.S. victory ‘stolen’ by referee by Martin Rogers (Yahoo! News), Donovan didn’t accuse the referee of bias, just of incompetence:
“They [the officials] stole a goal from us […] It was a good finish and a good goal. […] It was the guy’s [Coulibaly’s] first World Cup and maybe he got caught up a bit. This is the World Cup and you can’t just take away a goal from a team like that.”
On the contrary. They can and do make mistakes. As mentioned above, Donovan is 100% correct about the goal itself—and video evidence backs this up. However, when he says that “you can’t just take away a goal from a team like that”, he is dead wrong because FIFA has never, ever—not once!—changed the result of a game after the fact. That is, they can take a goal away because the score will stand at 2–2. There probably isn’t even a way to make an appeal.
If there was a way to make an appeal, where would it end? Do you go back and pick the game apart, play by play? How can you do this, when one bad call in one place may lead to an opportunity in another? The blog post, Referee Again in Center of Controversy by Jeff Z. Klein (NY Times), notes that exactly this happened. Though one can only find videos of the nullified American goal, the goal was the result of a free kick that resulted from a highly questionable foul granted the U.S. team.
“Odder yet, the foul that led to the free kick was the result of a questionable call by Coulibaly. United States striker Jozy Altidore ran into a Slovene defender and fell theatrically, drawing a whistle from Coulibaly.
“It is unclear whether Coulibaly waved off the subsequent United States goal as a sort of makeup call for having awarded the Americans a questionable free kick — perhaps the only plausible explanation for the nullified goal.”
It’s highly plausible that Coulibaly granted the free kick and immediately regretted it. In most cases, the referee has nothing to rue—the free kick leads to nothing spectacular and the game proceeds with the bad call having had no undue effect for either side. However, the U.S. scored a beautiful, powerful goal on it—after Coulibaly had already blown the play dead. In fact, he seems to have blown the play dead almost as soon as the ball was kicked, which is why many thought he was calling offsides. Perhaps he was making the not-too-far-fetched assumption that the U.S. would commit some fouls in the box while jockeying for position. In that case, even the video replay would have backed him up (though some might have asked how he could possibly have seen the fouls from his field position).
Unfortunately for Coulibaly, none of this happened and the U.S. scored a nice, clean goal off of a free kick that they should never have been granted. Would it not then have been the Slovenians’ place to be outraged that they’d lost the game to a bad call? The only feasible place to end such questioning is to disallow it completely, as FIFA does. This is not to say that referees are infallible, but that to allow players and coaches to question them based on their own subjective impressions is untenable.
There are, however, other, non-subjective solutions. Video replay could be successfully integrated without harming the game: each side gets one replay request per game; if a request results in an overturned call, the requesting team gets another request. Such a system would allow teams to address bad calls, but also keep them from calling for video review too often. FIFA has been adamantly opposed to both video replay and electronically tracking balls to determine whether they actually cross side, end or goal lines—technology similar to that used so successfully in professional tennis.
Some plays—like offsides and set-pieces— are notoriously difficult to call correctly. With so few goals and so little between teams at the international level, it’s a scandal to decide games on referee weakness. It would be much cooler to remember amazing goals than to remember “that time that one guy got away with breaking a rule”.
That said, however, I’m forced to agree with Ken Silverstein: “Landon Donovan is an ass.” He doesn’t understand when sportsmanship and respect for the game trumps being right. These things happen and athletes who have been athletes for as long as Donovan has should know better.