Saturday, June 19, 2010

When referees play karma

After the USA-Slovenia rollercoaster ended Friday afternoon, our entire nation seethed at one man alone. Koman Coulibaly's phantom call was inexplicable at the time, and it still remains mystifying no matter how many times you replay the free-kick itself: no offsides, no fouls (aside from the slew of Slovenian ones), nothing at all. It was, easily, one of the worst calls in World Cup history.

Most media sources have largely chalked this one up to gross incompetence, but some have started to realize that we've been robbed much worse than we knew. I noticed this via a revelatory tweet, as Twitter user paddytim wrote to WhitlockJason:

"bs call was a make up call for a bad call on awarding free kick to US. Ref blew whistle before play even started. US guy dove"

Upon further review, this is exactly what Coulibaly was thinking. Here's how the play happened by his reasoning. (Click link for full video.) Jozy falls under contact to the neck from a Slovenian defender. Coulibaly blows his whistle for the free kick. He quickly doubts his decision, and this doubt is reinforced when he notices the linesman doesn't raise his flag. When the free-kick is struck, Coulibaly already has his whistle in his mouth and blows the play dead, without hesitation or any particular reaction to what's in front of him. In other words, he was resigned to whistling a makeup call from the moment he doubted his original call.

I barely even know where to begin with this logic. I guess let's start from the beginning: the play leading to the free kick was absolutely a foul. Jozy certainly embellished the contact, but it doesn't change the fact that the Slovenian defender put a hand to his neck. That's a foul and a free kick in any circumstance. It's comparable to Nigeria's red card against Greece: Torosidis rolled around like he was shot, but Kaita had still tried to spike a dude in the thigh. That's a red card no matter what, and a hand to Jozy's neck is a foul, no matter what.

Into the real issue: the make-up call. Let's even put aside that make-up calls are explicitly outlawed by FIFA. Simply put, it is still an unacceptable justification. Think about it, where does that thinking lead to? If he thinks he mistakenly awarded a penalty, does he give another one later? (What if that guy misses, how do those mistakes cancel out?) If he didn't realize he was giving a second yellow to a player, does he send off someone from the other team? A referee should never play karma by retrospectively evening out his own mistakes, because these decisions have ripple effects.

This human interference is even worse than getting unluckily screwed by human error. At least poor officiating is an honest mistake, something we've long understood and forgiven as a part of sport. (Just ask Jim Joyce.) The U.S. fought back deservedly, and the game was decided by the players on the field, until Coulibaly decided that it wasn't. Such revision is absolutely intolerable from someone who is only supposed to enforce the rules of the game, and whatever punishment FIFA hands out is warranted.

As for the U.S., Algeria's draw with England means that the U.S. controls its own destiny, advancing with a win over Algeria on Wednesday morning (10 AM, ESPN). A draw can also put them through if England fails to win, yet without Coulibaly's input, that draw would have sufficed no matter what. The resolute Algerians make such a specter haunting, yet the U.S. proved its toughness against Slovenia, and this squad is ready for the fight. Bottom line, the USA showed that it's capable of advancing, but nobody will benefit if more than 11 men stand in their way.


  1. Interesting take. I hadn’t considered the make-up call angle. The ref should have waited for Altidore to simulate another foul and then penalized him for that. I am anxious to see what FIFA will do with this ref.

  2. If FIFA is interested in attracting fans to soccer/football/futbol, then they will clean house. Referees like the embarrassments we've seen to this point (Spanish ref in Germany v. Slovakia, French ref in Brazil v. Ivory Coast, and Exhibit A: ref in US v. Slovenia) have no business in the game.

    When the casual fan invests time in front of the television only to find that the whim of a single man can decide the game instead of the players hustling their butts off, there is a major problem. Until FIFA actually does something to remedy the situation, they will be complicit in the fraud.

    It's high time international soccer/football/futbol had real accountability. There is too much riding on the matches to allow them to end in such fashion.

  3. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree