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USA - Slovenia - The Winning Goal That Wasn't

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Well, apparently SBNation has gotten big enough to be the victim of a denial of service attack. You know you've reached the big time when someone cares enough about you to maliciously pound your servers for no apparent reason. It makes me so proud. If you've been trying to access Clips Nation late Friday or early Saturday (LA time) and were unable to do so, that's why.

At any rate, I've been meaning to write a little something something about USA-Slovenia and either hadn't found the time, or wasn't able to get into the site.

NBA fans (all fans, really) get upset with the impact of poor officiating, and perhaps even more so with the imperious nature of the officials and the NBA regarding bad calls. David Stern and the NBA rarely if ever admit that an official blew a call, and when they do it's invariably in the vague, general sense of "Officials are human, they sometimes miss calls." They almost never admit or even talk about specific calls or issues.

But the imperiousness of the NBA pales in comparison to that of FIFA. David Stern and Sepp Blatter both fancy themselves the stewards of an 'important' sport, but with more nations, more zeal, more fans and the world's biggest event behind him, Blatter has the better case- and he makes the most of it. Let's face it - even David Stern and the NBA answer to FIBA at the World Championships and the Olympics. FIFA answers to no one.

When I was working on the technology applications for World Cups in 1994 and 1998, the transition to the world of international soccer from that of American sports was difficult. Designing the results capture system, it was only natural for me to want a lot of details on every call on the pitch. After all, when a foul or violatoin is committed in basketball, the referee tells us the number of the player who committed it, and often tells us the kind of foul it was (charge, block, traveling, etc.) So for events like fouls and yellow cards, my inclination was to allow and even require a category for the infraction. When the FIFA representatives I was working with explained to me that there was often no way of knowing what the referee on the pitch had called, I was a little dumbfounded. "Well, how does anyone know what the yellow card was for?" "You know if you were watching the game. And if you don't, it doesn't matter. Only the referee knows for sure, and he's the only one that matters."

Time and again I was shocked at the power of this one man, the head referee in a soccer match. Bear in mind, this was before I even coached AYSO. The entire landscape was foreign to me, and the contrast to American sports - there are three essentially equal referees in basketball, four umpires in baseball, about a hundred officials in American football - was stark. You don't even know when the game is over! It's only over when the referee says it's over - how weird is that for a society hooked on buzzer beaters and walk off home runs? The head referee in a soccer match has a LOT of power. You think Joey Crawford has the ability to impact an NBA game? Meet Koman Coulibaly (or really, any other head referee at the World Cup).

And then, when something controversial does occur on the pitch, FIFA closes ranks like David Stern only wishes the NBA could.

Let's be clear. That was a goal in the 85th minute by Maurice Edu. There was no foul - or rather, no foul committed by a US player. It's often said (in basketball and soccer) that with all the pushing and shoving going on, you could call a foul on every play. But I've watched that replay about 100 times, from every camera angle, and there's just nothing there. Unless you're penalizing one of the US players for allowing themselves to be grabbed and held by various Slovenes, there's just nothing there.

Yesterday afternoon I was talking to the ClipperWife about the play. She worked on the World Cups with me as well, and knows a bit about the game, but is far from the sports nut that I am. After we'd been discussing the play for a while, she asked me matter of factly what the referee had called. I said that no one knew. "Well, I know that no one understands what he called, and that no one can see any foul, but I just want to know what he actually called. He had to tell someone what he called, right?" She didn't realize that when I said no one knew what he called, that I was speaking literally, not figuratively. No one knows. We know he didn't call offside because the flag wasn't up and he signaled a free kick for Slovenia. Other than that, we don't know. We don't know who the foul was supposedly on, what it was for, nothing.  And we probably never will. The closest thing we'll get to an admission of a problem is if  Coulibaly is not assigned to any more matches.  That's it.

Many people have been somewhat philosophical about the situation. And in the big picture, it may not matter a lot. If you'd said going into the tournament that the US could advance to the round of 16 with a win in their final match against Algeria, you'd have taken that. So the knockout round starts a match early for the US - from now on its win or go home. (That's not literally true, as a US tie combined with anything other than an England win probably gets them through as well, but I like the do or die approach.) It doesn't even much matter whether you go through as first in the group or second. Since the one team the US might want to avoid in Group D is Germany, and Germany looks unlikely to win Group D after their loss to Serbia yesterday, you'd almost rather advance as the second place team from Group C.

Some have suggested that the US should never have dug an 0-2 hole in the first place, and that they therefore only have themselves to blame for needing that disallowed goal. Give me a break. Certainly they played a dismal first half (Onyewu in particular), but the hole was dug, and the end result is that the referee denied the US one of the greatest comeback victories in Word Cup history. The 0-2 deficit is a big reason why Coulibaly's mystery call is important - to say otherwise is just silly.

The other thing I'll say on this subject, relating it back to basketball as well, is that even though bad calls happen, the most frustrating and suspicious ones are the ones when a referee calls something that isn't there. Officials can make a mistake either by failing to call something that happened, or by incorrectly calling something that didn't happen. One can understand the first category of mistake much more easily. Maybe his line of sight was screened on the play, maybe he blinked, maybe he just failed to act. At any rate, if a call is 'missed', it's not necessarily any less impactful on the outcome, but it's understandable from the 'only human' standpoint. But it frustrates me no end when referees see stuff that DIDN'T happen. How do you explain that? "Refs are only human - and some of them hallucinate?" It's those calls, the phantom calls where you have to ask yourself what the referee thought he saw, which make you wonder about agendas.