Of all the things that impressed and elated me about the play of the U.S. team yesterday against Brazil, one might come as a bit of a surprise. It was this: during the waning minutes of the game, before Rapinoe’s cross and Wambach’s brilliant header, at least two players did their best to draw penalty kick calls against Brazil. It’s always dangerous and highly subjective to try and make clear distinctions between a legitimate fall and a dive in football. People can, and frequently do, engage in discussions of almost Talmudic proportions about this — and I won’t say I know for sure. But I will say this: if they were dives, as I’m sure many Brazilian fans believed they were, and if one of them had led to a penalty kick and a goal for the U.S., I would have been delighted.
As it turns out, the U.S. got a goal in a much more elegant and satisfying way. But I mention this here as we look ahead to the semi-final game against France because I see it as one of the truest signs of how terrific and skilled this team is. They used all the tools at their disposal yesterday, brilliantly and victoriously.
Football is a full spectrum sport: it takes as much mental as physical agility, as much tactical sense as athleticism, and as much theatricality as forthrightness. It is notoriously, even constitutively, unfair. With glaring and frustrating consistency, referees make a huge and often decisive difference in a game, as Jacqui Melksham did yesterday. That is how the sport is structured, and it means that any decent team is constantly directing a certain amount of their energy towards influencing the referee in their favor, through words or performance.
You can lament this fact about football, as many occasional viewers of the sport in the U.S. do, dreaming up some different game in which none of this would be the case. But football as it is has, over the course of the past century, conquered the world. It’s international competitions are the largest theater that has ever existed in human history. If that is true it is precisely because it’s form — with all its infuriating unfairness — is precisely what allows the kind of unforgettable drama we watched yesterday to unfold and take hold of our imaginations.
All of this is partly to explain why the way in which the Brazilian players — and especially Marta — were booed during the game and vilified afterwords left a pall over the experience for me. There was, as Jennifer Doyle noted this morning, a “dark undercurrent” in many comments about the Brazilian team (and Marta in particular) on twitter, and an unappealing and at times gloating tone to some of the on-air commentary as well. Perhaps much of this is inevitable — sports fans are, of course, not known for the empathy towards the other team, and in the rush of a game emotions take hold. But, the morning after, it is worth thinking through precisely what happened on the field yesterday — in order to understand why the U.S. win matters so much.
The series of referee calls that ended up producing Brazil’s equalizing goals were, at the moment, totally baffling. What’s interesting in looking back at them, however, is that each of them, on their own, seems to have been technically justifiable. (I won’t say “correct,” since there’s always plenty of latitude in interpretation here.) Many in the U.S. obviously feel that the foul call against Marta was unjustified. But she was taken down while heading for what seemed likely to be a goal, and many referees would have done what Melksham did yesterday and awarded a red card and a penalty kick. Ian Darke in fact made this point on ESPN at the time. The decision was on the harsh side, but certainly within the bounds of normal refereeing practice.
It was, to be sure, a huge and shocking blow to the U.S. team. Which is why what happened next seemed particularly, excruciatingly unfair. There’s still confusion about precisely why Solo’s save of the first penalty kick was disallowed. (FIFA’s penchant for secrecy carries over to the way it organizes post-match press-conferences with referees, which are vague and almost always useless.) But it seems, at least according to some commentators, that the reason was not that Solo moved off the line (which she didn’t do) but because one of the U.S. defenders encroached into the area just before the kick was taken.
The law against encroachment is applied infrequently, and often seems a little superfluous if not absurd. But it is on the books for a reason: when a penalty kick is taken in the course of the game, the ball is still in play. If the goalie blocks it, and players from both teams can try and score a goal. The problem with a player encroaching on the area before the kick is taken is that it gives that player an unfair advantage in the scrum around a blocked penalty kick.
Last year in South Africa, during the Spain-Paraguay quarter-final match, the referee made an encroachment call — one as infuriating to Spanish fans as the one yesterday was to U.S. fans. (I was at the game, and like most people in the stadium had no idea what was going on.) In that case, Spain was given a penalty kick and scored, but it was disallowed because of encroachment by Spanish players. (In that case, to be sure, the encroachment was more blatant than it was yesterday, involving several players, as you can see in the photograph below, part of a longer discussion of the refereeing of the game). The second penalty kick was then blocked by the Paraguayan goalkeeper. If the game had gone differently — if Villa had not eventually scored — that encroachment call could well have kept Spain out of the World Cup final.
The final controversial refereeing decision yesterday came when Marta scored her second goal — a brilliant shot — after what may have been an offside by another Brazilian player. Here too, there’s still confusion — I’ve seen replays and photos (like the one below) but am still not sure. But if we wanted to start listing all the times a goal was allowed with an offside, or disallowed because an offside call that turned out to be wrong, we’d all be here for the rest of eternity. What is perhaps more significant is that the fact that Shannon Boxx was busy lobbying the referee for an offside call was actually what gave Marta the space to score the goal — a mistake you can see clearly on the replay. It’s always better to depend on your feet than on the uncertainty of a referees’ call.
Melksham was, without a doubt, a highly interventionist referee — irritatingly so. Her style contrasted markedly with the referee in the previous day’s France-England match, who was much more low-key and hands-off. Melksham’s mistake was in failing to reach some kind of balance in the game. I doubt there has ever been a football match that was perfectly refereed, or one in which neither side had a grievance with the officiating. But the best referees establish authority and keep themselves out of the game as much as possible while still policing it. At its worst, their authority becomes overbearing, as it did yesterday. Piling on the red card plus a penalty plus not allowing a penalty after it was saved because of a what was at worse relatively minor technical violation was simply too much: it felt like a curse. Melksham seemed to be attempting to balance things out when she disallowed the first U.S. penalty kick, which was blocked by the Brazilian keeper, because she moved off the line. By then, of course, she’d lost the confidence of most who were watching, and was probably just desperate to get away from an experience that must have been quite hellish for her as well. Refereeing football, after all, is a particularly grueling job, and indeed I think it’s kind of a miracle that anybody is willing to do it. Those who do certainly deserve much less grief, and more sympathy, than they generally get.
Here’s the thing, though: in none of these cases did Marta do anything particularly egregious. Nevertheless, frustrated at the referee, the crowd in the stadium and the virtual crowd on twitter attacked her, booing her whenever she touched the ball. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in football, of course, and we all have our villains (I still can’t get over Suarez blocking the ball with his hand during the Uruguay-Ghana match). But to me it felt ugly and unnecessary.
The most infuriating action on the field came late in overtime when Erica ate several minutes of time — precious to the U.S., and dangerous for Brazil — with what a feigned injury. She did this in a particularly unabashed and obvious way, but it is a classic technique, one deployed traditionally in many, many games. Indeed, if the roles had been reversed and the U.S. had been up, I would have expected our team to do whatever they could to waste time — taking slow goal kicks, throw-ins, etc. Erica went too far with the tactic, and it came off as particularly cynical. But it wasn’t outside the bounds of all sporting behavior, nor was it — as some seemed to feel — an affront to Western Civilization. It was just cynical, unappealing, desperate football. And, as several people who commented on this post have pointed out, Melksham did give Erica a yellow card for this — something quite rare. And in an interesting twist, it was during the time added to the clock to make up for that incident that Rapinoe and Wambach made their now-canonical goal.
In the midst of a game like yesterday’s, it’s easy and convenient to forget how many football matches have been shaped by refereeing as or more egregious than what we saw yesterday. In fact, such controversies are so common that they pretty much have to be considered a core aspect of actually-existing football. It might seem ungracious to cite the most famous game in the history of U.S. women’s soccer to make this point, but it’s worth doing so. In 1999 — twelve years to the day from yesterday’s match — Briana Scurry famously stepped off the line and blocked the third penalty kick taken by China. It was a pretty blatant violation of the laws of the game, and she and others admitted it afterwords. The referee didn’t call it. That call put China one point down, allowing Brandi Chastain to win the World Cup with her legendary goal. Did we care? No. Should we? Probably not. (The truly moral course of action, presumably, would have been to forfeit the trophy after a public admission of guilty). We should be glad that, in the wild mess of football refereeing, we happened to luck out in that particular case. But do China fans have the right to feel like victory was stolen from them by a referee? They do, just as we could have blamed the referee if the U.S. had lost yesterday.
Indeed, fans of Brazil have their own grievances with the referee from yesterday’s game: as one reminded me almost as soon as I posted these thoughts this morning, I forgot to mention Carli Lloyd’s intentional hand-ball earlier in the game, which some thought deserved a yellow card — which would have gotten her expelled from the game and totally changed the dynamic at that point, presumably in favor of Brazil. Each game, in fact provides what anthropologist Christian Bromberger describes as an “inexaustible terrain of interpretation,” a kind of infinite regression into which we can all pour our analysis — and our rage — without ever coming to a clear consensus about right and wrong, fair and unfair.
It’s very satisfying to feel aggrieved, as the reaction to the U.S.-Slovenia game last year demonstrated. We in the U.S., it turns out, can do it as expertly as anyone in the world. It a useful response, and helps particularly as a form of angry mourning after a defeat. You can keep it up for decades, in fact: talk to a French football fan of a certain age about the 1982 semi-final against Germany, and they will tell you about bad refereeing.
But the crucial thing about yesterday’s game was that, while commentators in the U.S. were busy feeling persecuted and sorry for themselves, the players on the team didn’t waste their time with that. Instead, they played, and fought, and kept pushing until they finally broke through and scored. That was the key to their victory: they did what the greatest of teams to, bouncing back and pushing on, without letting the fury they must have felt get in the way of brilliant playing and clinical penalty kicks. That is what makes them a great team — one of the greatest the U.S. has ever seen.
Those skills will serve them well against France on Wednesday. The two teams come into the semi-final with a remarkably parallel experience in this tournament. They both did well in their first two group games — France with more panache than the U.S. particularly in their game against Canada — but then lost the third against tough opponents. They both went through grueling quarter-final matches and won on penalty kicks — and both showed tremendous mental strength, pulling out goals late in the game and taking their penalty kicks with cool power. They’ll both be tired physically, but mentally charged up from their victories. They have different styles of play, and the conflict promises to be riveting.
Interestingly, there will be two models of training and player development up against one another on Wednesday. U.S. women’s soccer has long been sustained by college and university programs (notably UNC) which have produced our greatest players. In France, players take a different route: most of those on the team went through state-supported player academies, notably the national academy at Clairefontaine. In both countries, however, the existence of professional leagues has been crucial in supporting the women’s game — many of the French players are together at the leading women’s team, Lyon, and it shows in their cohesive play on the field.
Though the French players and the team in general was far less known than the Brazilians before this World Cup, players like Louisa Necib and Marie-Laure Delie have shown brilliance on the field and, alongside players like Wambach, Solo and Krieger, can lay claim to being among the great stars of the game. When they face off against the now canonized Wambach, Solo, Rapinoe and Krieger, it will — hopefully — be for another remarkable match.
Then again, maybe not. Sometimes quarter-finals are the best games of the World Cup. And there’s always the chance that a bad referee will mess everything up — or else, as Melksham did yesterday, set up the very conditions of possibility for a story of heroism and redemption that is one for the ages. For now though, between the giddy haze of yesterday’s victory and the pleasant expectation of more to come, we should remember that it is precisely the mad and infuriating form of football that delivers all of this: the sense of history, of being in precisely the right moment at the right time, of seeing things unfold as they should, as they must.