By Mark Stokes
If you're like me, you had a knot in the pit of your stomach as you exited work for a couple of days this weekend, brought on no doubt by the injustice meted out to the US team in South Africa.
I've played in and seen enough football not to miss a real dud of a referee when I encounter one. Koman Coulibaly, take it from me, gave everyone who holds an interest in US soccer the big middle finger at about 10 minutes to noon on Friday.
The Mali referee reached into the realm of truth and reality and extracted his own brand of justice with one of the worst performances seen, since, well ... Swedish referee Martin Hansson robbed Ireland of a place at the same World Cup finals.
And if you felt for Landon Donovan and Bob Bradley as they tried to keep a lid on it in their postgame interviews, you shouldn’t have. For Landon and Bob and you, for that matter, need to take a more cheerful approach. Just think of the song that goes, “Always look on the bright side of life“.
Why? Because FIFA, the world’s governing body for soccer, insists that’s the way you should see things when your team is cheated out of what is right. It’s the beauty of the game you see. Or let me be more precise and use FIFA’s own term - the "purity" of the game.
The purity of the game occurs when a human makes a horrendous error when adjudicating a game of soccer. Big game or small, it really shouldn’t matter - you should always see the purity of it all no matter what transpires. And if you went to great expense and family disruption to travel to the World Cup, just recall those wonderful words of wisdom from FIFA and you’ll surely feel better. Feeling better yet?
That, in a nutshell, is what the organizing body told the people of Ireland last November when France's Thierry Henry twice handled the ball in the Irish penalty area and then crossed to William Gallas, who had been offside to begin with, to score a French winning goal that was as illegal as it was heartbreaking. Even when the French made a gesture to replay the game, our wonderful friends in the corridors of power at FIFA, stepped in to say: Non, monsieur!
But then a replay would have messed with that whole ‘purity’ issue, now wouldn’t it?
And it all happened again at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Friday (hate to say I told you so but I did say some team would be left cursing officialdom before the tournament is over) when Maurice Edu steamed in to meet Donovan’s free kick and rifled the ball to the roof of the Slovenian net. The goal should have completed the best comeback in US soccer history and pointed the Eagles toward a Round of 16 berth. But it didn’t because of one man in yellow.
And it wasn’t just one referee error. Our friend Koko from Mali made sure that the US would not be scoring a goal shortly before the Edu incident. At 74 minutes, when there occurred a scramble in the Slovenian penalty area, the official blew his whistle to award an outward-bound free kick for reasons that only he will know. It was one of several ludicrous decisions on the day.
Robbie Findley given a red card for handball? You cannot be serious, Koko? What hand, what ball? Then there was a last-man tackle on Jozy Altidore. A red card, in most people's eyes, for thwarting a clear goal scoring opportunity? I guess not. And then the 'goal' itself – there were at least three rugby tackles on blue-shirted players during the play, but all the referee spotted was a phantom offside.
It's hard to defend an official who doesn't at least consult his assistant in such circumstances.
Koman Coulibaly disgraced the refereeing profession. Martin Hansson, the man who broke Irish hearts went on to officiate a highly controversial game involving Arsenal and Porto in European competition this past season, and was decorated by FIFA suits who nominated him to officiate at the big show in South Africa.
No accountability, no problem! Coulibaly will be promoted also, we can presume.
It's all wrong. But controversy will come calling again before this tournament is over. FIFA could care less about its subjects. If it did, it would have taken measures to prevent another 'Hand of God' incident after the infamous 986 tournament incident involving Argentina's Diego Maradona.
FIFA's unwillingness to listen to anyone or anything (consider the ball fiasco at this year's tournament) marks it as the most intransigent corporation ever known to mankind and means there will be many more tears spilled before July 11.
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