Jun 20 2010
Paul Kennedy recently noted at Soccer America that we owe a big thank you to Koman Coulibaly, the suddenly world-famous referee who made a controversial call against the U.S. a few days ago. “He accomplished what no one else could in more than 100 years. He made Americans care passionately about soccer.” Indeed, I may have to take back what I wrote last week in my post “Happy at the Margins.” Maybe soccer has arrived in the U.S. On Friday it suddenly seemed as if we’ve joined the venerable ranks of the aggrieved nations of international soccer, the righteously indignant, the purveyors of rage and — in some quarters — bizarre, xenophobic, and racist conspiracy theories all aimed at one man and his whistle.
Depending on what happens next week, the incident will perhaps go down in history as the moment when we were robbed of what should have been a victory. We might join with the French who still remember their game against Germany in 1982, when Schumaker actually both kicked and elbowed Patrick Battiston in the face and no call was made, or the English remembering the “Hand of God,” or the Australians remembering the foul called at the last minute against them in their 2006 game with Italy, or the Irish, who are going to be talking about Thierry Henry’s hand for quite some time.
For a while there after the game, we might have been in any number of other countries after any number of World Cup games during which one’s team has been grievously denied a victory by the referee. There was, of course, something a little funny — indeed parochial — about some of the comments. The referee didn’t speak English, we heard. I don’t imagine he spoke Slovene either, just French and probably several other languages. It’s an international game, and whatever the English might think English is not the international language of football. At the World Cup, speaking English is not a requirement.
There was commentary about the fact that Coulibaly had only refereed within Africa — oh, say, at the African Nation’s Cup, one of the planet’s most riveting and intensely followed tournaments — as if this somehow explained something. They’ve actually had football and referees in Africa about as along as everywhere else, folks, and indeed referees in Africa are as closely watched too — very closely watched. Africa is not some other alternative universe in the football world.
The battle spread onto the internet, where it generated a fair share of weird reactions, conspiracy theories, and racism. As John Turnbull has described, valiant warriors in pursuit of justice took the battle to the most crucial place of all: Wikipedia.
The ritual has taken the usual course: righteous rage and indignation, accompanied by reasonable but much less fun comments along the lines of “well, you wouldn’t have needed the third goal if you didn’t let two in yourselves,” followed by an explosion of talk about the unfairness of it all, the need for instant replay, then, after we get a little tired of feeling sorry for ourselves, some timid reactions in defense of the referee. FIFA will review the game, make some bland bureaucratic decision of one kind or another, and — I hope — Coulibaly will be able to continue working.
Don’t get me wrong: I hated the call, shouted at the screen, stomped around like everyone else completely convinced that, from my living room, I knew exactly what had happened. But no one forced me to watch soccer. And if you’re at least a little familiar with it, you know this: it’s often unfair, and referees often make the wrong call, sometimes with dramatic consequences. In the end, the most devastating thing about all this is that there is no great conspiracy, not even some kind of massive inexcusable error for which Coulimany should receive draconian punishment. Just a mistake.
Let’s be fair. We put our referees in this position, asking them to make instant decisions with their eyes, and giving them the authority to do so. They make mistakes all the time, and they do so simply because they are human. Certainly there is room for the discussion of changing the rules to make life easier for the referees, and for players and fans too. But to direct so much rage at someone doing a largely thankless job is a little unreasonable.
That unreasonableness is, of course, a part what soccer fandom is all about. For those who are just tuning in: welcome to the perhaps the strangest, most unfair and most exhilarating symbolic machine the human race has ever invented. Join us in one of the most inefficient ways of nursing grievance: after all, if it doesn’t work out this time, there’s always Brazil 2014 — but there will be referees and blown calls there too.