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World Cup update: Shoddy refs and an African fiasco

Most memorable African moment on the field so far was a bad call by a ref from Mali.

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Referee Jorge Larrionda of Uruguay shows the yellow card to Cameroon's Sebastien Bassong (right) after he fouled Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner (left) during a 2010 World Cup Group E soccer match against Denmark at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, June 19, 2010. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

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.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

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.