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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.

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.