World Cup update: Shoddy refs and an African fiasco

BOSTON — Of all the eager expectations for World Cup 2010, perhaps the most heartfelt was that an African setting might lead to an African breakthrough on the field.

Instead South Africa has witnessed an African fiasco: so far the six African teams have combined for just one win in a dozen games and it is possible, even likely, that none will reach the second round. With all 32 teams about to play their third and final game of the first round, only Ghana is in position to advance — and it will likely need at least a tie against mighty Germany.

Even worse, the most memorable African moment on the field was the egregious call by a referee from Mali that cost the United States a crucial victory against Slovenia. The United States now needs to beat Algeria Wednesday (or with some scenarios, a tie will suffice), raising the possibility that an African referee and an African team will combine to thwart American dreams.

The United States is hardly the only team that has been victimized by dubious officiating. Germany lost to Serbia after a dubious ejection, Italy salvaged a tie against New Zealand thanks to a questionable penalty (after a patented Italian dive in the box) and the ref lost control of the Brazil-Ivory Coast game and wound up booting Kaka after an Ivory Coast player ran into him and feigned injury. And Switzerland, coming off its stunning upset of Spain, had its hopes — for a second win and maybe the second round — dashed when a card-happy ref saw red.

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I wrote almost 30,000 words previewing the World Cup, covering teams, players, coaches and tactics. But I didn’t expend a single word on officiating. I was unaware of the potential of the referees to wreak havoc on the game and, in the end, do more than the ballyhooed stars like Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi to determine the ultimate champion. In fact, I have long been a critic of FIFA for its failure to address officiating woes. Just last week, I wrote: “The odds are that FIFA’s feeble excuse for rejecting all technological assistance will eventually come back to haunt them.”

That wasn’t entirely accurate. The truth is that it haunts us, the fans, who want to see the players rather than the officials determine the outcomes of these contests. FIFA, by contrast, has a remarkably cynical perspective on the problem. It doesn’t really care what fans say or journalists write just so long as they are talking and writing about the World Cup. It is the organizational equivalent of the old public-relations adage: “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.”

And nothing gets people talking like scandalously bad officiating. Even the most casual fans are aware of Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup, though not necessarily of the Argentine legend’s second score in that same game, a remarkable one-man run through the English defense that many regard as the greatest goal in World Cup history. Similarly, the most memorable moment of the 2006 World Cup was not a transcendent feat of athletic grace and beauty, but a vicious head butt.

And which 2010 World Cup qualifying game still provokes comment? Not little Slovenia’s stunning upset of Russia, but France’s theft against Ireland, with the winner coming on a handball — even worse a deliberate handball — seen by everyone except the hapless referee. Fans have rejoiced at the French team’s implosion on and off the field in South Africa — no goals and a subsequent refusal by players to practice — but FIFA has clearly been delighted that the tournament had a galvanizing villain.

Just like several weeks ago when a bad call by a baseball umpire dominated the sports headlines and the talk-radio discussion in the United States, the soccer ref’s miscarriage of justice has Americans talking about soccer with more passion than ever before. FIFA obviously prefers a week of outrage to the one-day celebration of what, after all, would only have been one of the greatest comeback victories ever in World Cup competition.

And despite the obvious parallels between the two bad calls, each coming at the expense of the sport’s history, the baseball umpire at least explained his decision, confessed his mistake and apologized. The soccer ref not only refused to explain his call to the Americans on the field, but there was no clarification of the call — not even what it was or who it might have been on — afterward. The latter is in keeping with FIFA’s fan-friendly approach of “never explain.”

About the most you can expect from FIFA is that, a number of days later, it might acknowledge officiating error and say there is nothing it can do about it, triggering another round of outrage that FIFA alone can celebrate. The Malian ref is unlikely to take the field again in this World Cup (though he was the back-up fourth official for Sunday’s Italy-New Zealand game), but the damage is already done.

And while FIFA is happy turning a blind eye to a public relations problem, the trouble comes when a mistake proves to be something more than human error. Soccer, because of the low scores and the immense power that one man wields, is more susceptible to match-fixing than any other sport. One dubious red card, a single penalty awarded or denied, or, as we saw in the U.S. game, a goal disallowed on a phantom call is often sufficient to determine an outcome. Soccer has already endured major scandals in a number of countries, including one in Italy’s Serie A. The World Cup has as of yet — at least to our knowledge — been unscathed. But it is hardly immune.

Baseball is another hidebound sport that, for far too long, hid behind a reverence for tradition — “you’re blind ump, you’re blind ump, you must be out of your mind ump" — as its excuse for tolerating error. But it has finally accepted some minimal replay and, after its recent non-perfect game flap, will inevitably add more.

Soccer is the last holdout. FIFA, at least at the World Cup level, should utilize instant replay reviews of calls that result in penalty kicks and red cards. While the calls are infrequent, they frequently determine the result. A second look would reassure fans that FIFA wants honest results worthy of the world’s greatest sporting event.