Referees and Redemption: On the U.S vs. Brazil World Cup Match

By | July 11, 2011

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.

Category: Brazil France Rules and Referees United States Women's Soccer World Cup

About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2010) and The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (Basic Books, 2018)

46 thoughts on “Referees and Redemption: On the U.S vs. Brazil World Cup Match

  1. Pingback: Excellent futbol reads from 2011 | Futbol Daddy

  2. Roy

    Brian – Not a bad idea, although 10-15 minutes should be enough, so long as the player is not replaced; otherwise, less than scrupulous teams (no need to mention names) would use the rule to make additional late substitutions.

  3. Jamie Howell

    Not your average football fan, I was very conflicted yesterday. The 1st cup game I saw was Uruguay-Brazil when I was 6 years old in Maracana. Born American, grew up in the suburbs of Brazilian cities in the 40’s and 50’s playing soccer barefoot on dirt streets, I returned to USA in the early sixties to college where I played club soccer there to finally hanging up my boots at 61 when my wife complained that limping to the field to play wasn’t very intellingent.
    I coached boys and girls, men and women for thirty years and was twice California Distict 1 (San Francisco and North) Coach of the year. I grieved for the crowd and media treatment of Marta. I rejoiced at the Wambauch goal. I pray that Diane won’t get the same treatment that Barbosa suffered his entire life. But all in all, that game was the best drama in a game I have ever witnessed. Better than Germany-England 1970 or the tragic Italy-Brazil game of 1982. I enjoyed your insights and only add that, while I hope for a great show in tomorrow’s games, the history of the world cup has shown the best games historically have been the quarters. Please keep up your writing. You now have a west coast Zen Buddhist teacher fan. I await your reviews of tomorrow’s games eagerly.

  4. Brian

    One possible solution to the fake injury problem: require any injured player to leave the game for at least 30 minutes, if not the rest of the game.

  5. Stephanie

    My issue with Brazil has nothing to do with the officiating and I think is well deserving of the boos that Marta bad her team received on Sunday. They lobby the referee for cards to be issued in situations that are completely underserving. It is incredibly unsportsmanlike to vehemently petition the referee tensed off a player in the other team for what is a minor violation or a situation that you know was not a foul. This reminds me of the game when Boxx was sent off after Christiane tripped on Boxx’s heels. The ref did not see Christiane fall (through her own actions) and only saw Christiane lung on the ground with her hand up signaling the ref to give Boxx a card for a non-existent foul. I despise this aboutthe Brazilian team and will always feel as though they are an unsportsmanlike team as long as this is the way they play. They deserve to be booed.

  6. DHRoesch

    to comment 38 & 39:
    I don’t think there is a better way to decide a tournament game than PKs in a low scoring sport. A far as I know it exists in ice hockey at least in the worls championships. I don’t think that applying the way they do it in tennis would work, like this french and american at Wimbledon last year.

    On the “soccer being a joke” front, one issue is that soccer is not part of the sport culture of a significant number of Americans. But it is the number 1 sport worldwide, and that’s a fact. So what might be a joke for some people is not for others. It is called diversity. I believe one of the reasons soccer does not take on in the US is that it is a contineous sport and does not have all the interuptions NFL, NBA and … baseball have. As you may know american football and baseball are not popular outside of the US and a few other countries, however americans love it … and that’s just fine. It is part of cultural diversity.

  7. Nhu Tran

    I agree with this writer 100% except the incident when referee ordered a PK. I have watched this incident in slow motion again and again & I think that it is 50/50 chance. Marta wants to score, and at the same time US pplayers want to play defend too. I think it is very hard for Marta to score in that situation, so she dived and tried to kick the ball and see if the referee favors her action becasue she knows if she is down in the PK box, somethings will happen in her favor… Marta is an excellent soccer skills player, but her actions on the field do not and will not make her a great player. Pele is a great player becasue he did not act & whine in the field (like Marta) to influent the referees. I think that to make the soccer game to be fair in refereeing, FIFA needs to have instance replays system when any doubt situations happen in the PK box, outsides, diving acts…. and allow captain or coach on each team to request instance replay 3 times per half or per game. After all soccer game is just a game, and any sport games should be played with sportmanships. You are not the champ if you cheat to win the world cup. I think that Brazil soccer team has great skill players, but they do not play together or their coachs are not good, or they play with “street smart” instead of sportmanships or they focus on cheatings and indiviual, not to play fair and team work. This is becasue they have 11 players vs. 10 players in 55 minutes, but they are not able to come out with the win.

  8. shiloh

    btw, penalty kicks is a very, very, very lame way to decide any soccer game, let alone a championship game!

  9. shiloh

    “technically justifiable”

    blah, blah, blah just more “reasons” why soccer is a joke and :::zzz:::

    But congrats to the U.S. national team anyways and oh the irony of scoring a goal in the waning seconds of injury time because a Brazilian player (((faked))) an injury …

    Too funny!

  10. DHRoesch

    To Comment 3 & 22:

    I am pretty sure that Solo got the yellow card because she ran towards the side line judge and complained. Remember, the side line judges and referee are connected electronically.

  11. Hardy

    Call me an iconoclast, but I thought the Aussie ref did an admirable job in very difficult circumstances. The most controversial call, the PK encroachment, was technically correct, albeit infrequently called, but that can hardly be used as evidence of incompetence. Indeed, the ref quite correctly called th Brazilian keeper for illegal movement on the US’s first PK and allowed a rekick, a vital rekick as it turned out. The supposed offside on Marta’s ET goal was the responsibility of the assistant lineswoman, and unfortunately blown offside calls were the norm in this WC. But it was marginal at best, so again chastising the ref for this non-call is ludicrous. Since everyone is so eager to condemn the ref, no one has given her the deserved kudoes for yellow carding Erica for time wasting when she so shamelessly faked an injury; how many times do you see a ref have the cojones to do that in the men’s game? And the US fans should be silently thanking the ref for not ejecting Cheney for a second yellow card on her non-called handball. All in all, I would grade the ref an 7.5 on a 10 point scale. Objective fans, rather than jingoistic late-comers to the game, should find that a reasonable assessment of the ref’s performance.

  12. Jo

    Solo’s yellow for dissent worries me. Firstly, that’s really when I lost it with Melksham. I agree that a nuanced referee knows what calls to let go. On top of the questionable encroachment, to give Solo a yellow for complaining is insane. If she did – and she of all people probably did say something – it could not have been over the line enough to warrant that. Melksham may have been so stressed at that moment that it was a reflex. It did seem to come out of nowhere, at least from what I could see on the screen.

    Carrying a yellow as the goalkeeper is NOT good. As many have suggested lots can happen in the box. We have the luxury of replay, but on the pitch it’s so fast. Anyway, call it the cynic in me. I’ve been a soccer fan a long time and try to be fair even if my team does something awful. As a supporter of the Azzurri (Italian men’s team), I’ve seen lots of unfair play by them and bad calling for and against them.

    I hope Sundhage reminds Solo of her yellow and to take care. Although the goalkeeper is usually very protected by the referee, France, or Japan or Sweden, should it come to that, can cause some sort of contact or situation that could send Solo off. That would be fatal. As an American I hate to see underhanded tactics, because we don’t gravitate towards that, but having seen enough futball, especially when things get desperate, I can’t help but wonder what an opposing coach might suggest to players as far as strategy.

    As for Marta, whenever she touched the ball she represented the entire team of Brazil which by that time the crowd in attendance seemed to have had enough of. I believe that going in German fans must have been neutral if not leaning towards them. Everyone wants to see and possibly beat Brazil because they are the most magical and sublime ball players. You’re looking at perfection. And to see that not be what they were about disappointed purists. Perhaps that was not fair because they had a battle to try to win as well.

    As the author says it’s the nature of the sport. It’s what makes it euphoric and maddeningly frustrating, and as long as your team comes out with the win an incredibly, viscerally satisfying emotional experience.

    Keeping the Hope!

  13. Steven

    Thanks for the chance of commenting. For the first penalty, Marta was not fouled by Buehler; she was pulling her shirt but Marta was stiff-arming Buehler, two counter-acting fouls that should result in a no-call. After watching the replays, I thought Marta took a dive and continue to think this, but perhaps she jumped in the air to kick the ball and fell poorly. But Buehler didn’t pull her down or trip her. So awarding a penalty kick was a very, very wrong decision on the ref’s part. Toward the end of the game two Americans were touched in the penalty area by defenders and fell, but no penalty was called, quite correctly, since they were not fouled.

    The red card to Buehler was totally undeserved. At most it should be a caution (yellow card) since there were other defenders next to Marta and Buehler. That was the ref’s second major mistake. Repeating the penalty kick for encroaching was the third. The ref didn’t even see it but it was called to her attention by the assistant ref. This encroachment was so minor it should have been ignored and usually is. I also note that a Brazilian also encroached next to the American and this was ignored. The ref did not see this encroachment and did not see how minimal it was and that it was counteracted by a Brazilian. Hope Solo was cautioned for dissent, no doubt deservedly so but the ref deserved the dissent, too.

    Carli Lloyd’s handball was not intentional; it shouldn’t have even been called as a foul. Furthermore, the ref doesn’t have to caution a player for a handball unless it is clearly intentional and gains an unfair advantage. The handball happened in midfield where it would have little or no advantage even if intentional.

    The player who crossed the ball to Marta for her goal was clearly offside when the ball was kicked forward to her. The assistant ref missed this (missing this is not the ref’s fault). However, I agree the greater blame is to Shannon Boxx for appealing to the ref for offside while ignoring Marta who scored a great goal. Boxx should have gotten in front of Marta.

    Throughout the game, the two assistant refs called plays offside when the attacker was even with the defenders. This was really incompetent especially after 25 years of even is onside. On the one play when the attacker was clearly offside on assistant ref didn’t flag it and a goal was scored. This is really poor officiating. Also, as Laurent Dubois points out, the Austrian ref was focusing attention on herself rather than on the players. This is bad officiating.

    Finally, the Brazilian keeper moved forward before the ball was kicked on EVERY penalty kick the Americans took during the shootout and Hope Solo never moved forward (sideways movement before the ball is kicked is allowed). If the ref had not awarded a second penalty kick for Boxx she would have proven not incompetence but extreme bias. The last four American penalty kicks were so well-taken that the Brazilian keeper couldn’t stop them even after moving forward 1-2 yards before the kick. The ref should have warned the Brazilian keeper about moving forward after the first Boxx penalty but she did not, so the keeper kept doing it. This is bad officiating.

    Fortunately, the game ended with the better team a victor and deservedly so. And by better I mean the team with more integrity, love for fair play, guts, and heart. Both teams were equal in soccer ability. The Brazilians were head-butting American players when going for headballs, back-handing them in the face, and diving. The refs need to give yellow and red cards for this behavior. Why doesn’t FIFA stop this? Erika’s deliberate and cynical time-wasting was so over-the-top that it was hilarious. She should have been sent off, not cautioned!

    I was a top referee in Houston, Texas, for ten years officiating high school varsity, the top men’s leagues, women’s leagues, international club games, Big Ten club games, and NCAA games. There is more gamesmanship now than in the 1980s when I officiated professionally. The women referees need to improve their foul recognition and be in better position to watch for gamesmanship. Then caution the offenders, not just accept it as part of the game. There have been some good women refs but the Austrian team does not qualify.

  14. Roy

    Much thoughtful comment here, but I wonder at the minimal sanction for Erika’s blatant flop. Several commentators applauded the ref for giving a yellow and adding 3 minutes to the clock, but it strikes me that wasting 5 minutes of play in exchange for 3 added minutes gains the cheater 2 minutes, and besides, what use is a yellow at that stage? Better a red, so that they go a man down and she’s gone for the next game, if they survive, plus add at least the same amount of time she wasted back to the clock. An extreme sanction for an utterly blatant (leaping off the stretcher!) & extreme case of poor sportsmanship. And Marta showed that while she has undoubted skills, she lacks class.

  15. longbeach

    When you are ahead it is to your benefit to reduce the amount of time the ball is in play. In the average football game the ball is in play for about an hour. The few minutes of extra time awarded is a joke. Please, please reduce the game time to one hour and run the clock only when the ball is in play. It will no longer be an advantage to dive, slow down throw ins and free kicks, etc. to use up time.

  16. Laurent Dubois Post author

    I’m really grateful for all these engaging and thoughtful comments. There’s clearly much to discuss — about Marta’s particular traits as well as about the broader issue of refereeing. I don’t mean to suggest that football can’t change, or that it shouldn’t in some ways — after all, the laws of the game today are the result of several generations of adaptions and changes. What I was trying to foreground was the fact that I don’t think you could remove the element of theatricality — a byproduct of the demand for a flowing game the depends on quick decisions by referees — without somehow fundamentally altering what it is that makes the sport so dramatic and exciting to watch. Of course we all have the right and probably the duty — especially players and coaches — to push back against cynical play. But there is an incredibly rich zone of gray within football, a place of highly contested interpretation that to my mind forms of a core of the fascination produced by the sport. What I’m trying to do her is push back against too-easy interpretations of any given game, to urge the kind of complex response that your comments here have also showcased. I look forward to continuing the conversation here!

  17. thinkpunk

    The phenomenon of booing Marta is really interesting. Yesterday’s game was not the first time it happened on that scale in Germany. In the game against Norway, Marta commited a clear foul in the build-up to the 1:0 that Kari Seitz inexplicably chose to ignore. Marta went on to score and was booed for a half-time. It wasn’t exactly her fault, the ref is supposed to call the foul and nobody in their right mind expected her to just stop running and doing a mea culpa. But jeering at the ref doesn’t gain an audience anything. Trying to psyche out the player, though, does or might (at least make you feel better). It’s like kids squabbling, all fun and games until one of them brings the parent on their side. Then the tears start.

    The problem is not the foul or a dive (Abby doesn’t get booed ;)), but the constant badgering of the ref, trying to influence her, getting her on their side, the fear of that working is a big motivator for a crowd.
    There might also be an element of rooting for the underdog and Marta just being the most outstanding and recognizable player on the other team.

    Regarding the screens in the stadium: There are replays on during the game, but afair only from nice plays or goals. Replay of ref decisions are generally forbidden, I think. That extends to scowling, crowding the refs, complaining etc. I I remember correctly, some incident where the audience could clearly see a wrong decision, players were pointing to it on the screen, preceded that regulation. Or convention.

    On the other hand the crowd might also remember Marta. The UEFA Cup final of 2008(?) when Umea played in Frankfurt, Marta drew fouls a bit too liberally, you can imagine what happened.. By now it’s almost become a reflex.
    Honestly, I don’t especially like the “dark undercurrent” in my own comments about Brazil during the match. On the other hand, this is what they do, in every single game I get to see. The team is known for two things only: Brilliant solo players and poor sportsmanship. And it’s not an image problem. It’s deliberate behavior. When I look at them I don’t think about what they could do if only they had equal resources. I think about what they could do if they chose to just play the game, quit the antics and play with the crowd support their skills undoubtedly deserve. Since they’ve again been eliminated maybe someone in a position of authority should propose a change of tactics. Marta can tell us the jeers don’t matter until she’s blue in the face, fact is she lost again.

    I want to support Brazil (as in “the better side”) as a neutral fan. And seeing her play in WPS games, I really like Marta. I would welcome our new overlords in women’s soccer! If they only believed they could win on their soccer merits. Everyone else already knows it.

    One word about the ref: Yes, terrible performance because of a lack of authority and clarity. But she did give Erika a yellow card for her playacting and time-wasting. In the hundreds of soccer matches I’ve seen I cannot recall the last time a ref did that. It was totally justified and adequate, yet I didn’t even think it possible. On any other occasion commentators lead you to believe that nobody can do anything against the cynicism, you have to take it and hope the ref is generous with overtime. But no, it’s unsportsmanlike conduct and can be punished as such! So, kudos to the ref. 😉

  18. tom osborne

    I’m a little confused by the comment regarding Carli Lloyd’s intentional handball. A handball, as defined by the laws of the game, is when, in the referee’s opinion, a player intentionally plays the ball with their hand.

    The infraction results in a direct kick (or pk if in the penalty area) for the opposing team. It is not an infraction that results in a yellow card. unless it is part of a pattern of deliberately interfering with the transitions.

    It was a simple handball. The referee actually got that right and awarded a direct kick.

  19. Stan Popper

    Nice article and I agree that technically, the ref got most right, and Buehler also grabbed Marta’s shirt on the red card (technically, a penalty). What incensed me about Marta and I think made her a target was that she showed a propensity to take dives, and when Abby Wambach may or may not have taken a dive, Marta got in her face and screamed at her to presumably get up. That was extremely poor sportsmanship. But the Brazilian fans probably loved that fight.

  20. Guy

    Laurent, you state “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. ”

    The football that has conquered the world is the game that children play in streets and vacant lots, sans referees, as friends. The football which has as its chief goal gathering all the money for those who control it is not that game – it is rather the game some people put up with in order to see some of the world’s most talented players involved with the soccer ball. Perhaps this is why we see the trend toward what is called “freestyle soccer”.

    In my first 7 years of playing (age 23-30, several times weekly for 2 to 4 hours per day) I played in only a handful of refereed games – the rest was pure pickup play, sometimes 4 a side, sometimes 15. There was no acting, no diving. Passersby would ask the pickup players who was winning, and we would say, “We all are – because we are out here playing.” I have fonder memories of those years than of the years following when I joined a team and played in refereed leagues.

    Twenty years ago, at 38, I ruptured an Achilles tendon entirely by myself, pushing off soft spring grass with brand-new cleats in attempt to murder a ball cleared from the opponents’ goal area. Instantly I knew the injury and that I would be missing a year of outdoor activities, and as I fell to the turf I was screaming obscenities at life in general. The poor twenty-something German striker I had been guarding was panic-stricken that I was taking a dive for the ref’s benefit and yelled repeatedly “I didn’t do anything! I didn’t do anything!!” until I calmed him down with “Yes, you didn’t do anything. I did it all by myself.” Until just now, I hadn’t realized that his protestations were probably due to a European lifetime of watching professional soccer. I hope men’s rec leagues in the USA haven’t developed this level of cancerous cynicism yet.

    In seven years of coaching my daughter’s teams I never encouraged theatrics or other cheating. I think that was the right decision given I was teaching them about life. If something beautiful is warped by greed for money or power, that does not make it better.

    One more thing – “it’s” means “it is”. No apostrophe is used for the possessive form of “it”.

  21. Alicia Ratterree

    Excellent article. One point I have been thinking about in hearing the narratives of the game is the tension between being ‘favored’ and ‘underdogs.’ On one hand, Brazil has a long pedigree as a soccer country for men, but the emergence of the Brazilian women’s team is rather new, so the dichotomy that Brazil is a soccer powerhouse is rather overblown. Certainly, despite never yet winning a Women’s World Cup Brazil have established themselves as one of the best teams in the world, but this idea that they were the Goliath to the USA’s David is patently false. Additionally, the USWNT has a really tricky position in the overall narrative. They have won two world cups, but it seems like other countries (Germany, Norway, etc) had eclipsed them, possibly for good. For people who were at least somewhat familiar with women’s soccer, they should be classified as neither favorites nor underdogs, but Americans love underdogs, and based on how the game went, they needed to play like underdogs.

    All of this is to say that Brazil and the United States, as football teams, were really quite evenly matched. Both teams were hungry for a title, seeing this tournament as a make or break moment. Both teams were in the mix as favorities, but had clear weaknesses. Despite the socioeconomic and geopolitical factors that fed into the dominant narratives in the U.S. on purely sporting terms, it was supposed to be an exciting match, and it was an exciting match.

  22. Sandolf

    Does anybody else miss Pierluigi Collina? He had his dark moments too. But in my mind he was absolutely brilliant at stamping his authority upon a match. A quiet word… an evil stare. Most times that was all that was necessary.

  23. melville

    Interesting analysis— though your argument seems to be that since soccer/football has taken over the world, it must be perfect as constituted seems a bit simplistic. How does diving/feigning help the game? Just by giving audiences a reason to feel outrage? (A thought about why we need sport— it lets us feel things, as drama did in ancient Greece….)

    Marta complained incessantly, and as a previous commenter has noted, her body language was petulant and selfish all game long…. which is a shame, since she produced some transcendent moments. Her move that produced the penalty was wonderful, leaving the US defenders looking like lumbering clydesdales…. and her goal in extra time was the definition of genius.

    The refereeing was terrible– period. Overly strict application of the rules can interfere with the proper and fair flow of the game, and good refs get this. (When was the last time you saw an illegal throw-in called?)

    But as you note— without the cynical Brazilian play and the terrible ref, the Americans don’t have the chance to show their resilience and cohesion. In the end….. what an amazing game.

  24. Bill Fill

    I wonder like Dennis:

    “question, though: if the PK decision was for encroachment, why did Solo get a yellow?”

  25. Stan

    I thought Erica’s “injury” was the reason that the US had enough time to mount numerous attacks. If the referee was trying to undo the prior damage, Erica gave her the perfect opportunity. That match should have been over much earlier!

  26. ex_sweeper

    Very good article! I hadn’t thought to wonder why the stadium crowd turned against Marta. The PK and retake were not her doing – the referee made the decisions. Most likely she was just a convenient magnet for rage at the dramatic reversal following Solo’s save on the PK. I don’t think that she flopped on the PK play, but probably everyone there knew that it’s in her repertoire.

    Do the big screens in the stadium show the same replays that ESPN gets? If so, that would certainly explain the crowd reaction. Marta’s constant scowl and complaints to the refs don’t make her easy to admire at any time. The world feed controllers (whoever they are) seem to have that opinion, based on how many close-ups they show of her acting out.

  27. knorr soup

    Loved the article; been looking for something more substantial all day regarding this game and all it’s controversy. Got to love the World Cup as it brings out the best and worst for all parties (players, coaches, refs, fans and the distant tv spectators).

    You can debate the interpretation of rules all day long but at the end of the day, it’s the result that matters.

    The jeering of Marta was deserved. If you pay to watch the best player in the world, and she spends much of her time complaining, seeking yellow cards for opposing defenders, and trying to manipulate an out-classed referee, spectators certainly don’t get their money’s worth (sure she provided moments of brilliance but her negativity outweighed the positives). While you might argue, she is just trying to create an advantage for her team and ultimately win the game, she actually produced the opposite. It served as a detriment to her team as those behaviors were becoming increasingly obnoxious to even the casual/neutral observers of the match. People expect more from a 5 time World Player of the Year, no matter what the stage.

    In the end the cynical approach failed and the measured, composed approach won out. Thank goodness for some honest football. What a great game!

  28. Jorge Monteiro

    Well done . Uneducated fans are as egregious as bad referrees. The point well taken is the coolness of U. S. Team in their focus and determination. It says a lot about their character. I look forward to the France USA match. I find France to be a well organized side with intellegence and athleticism.

  29. David Stincelli

    I liked your article. Marta was a pushy player and got away with knocking down players and not getting yellows all during the WC. The dive by the Brazilian player overshawdowed anything the U.S. pulled.

    Marta is a world class player. I wish to hell she was on the USA team. Most games I have seen where play in the box happens that is not a red card or PK. My local newspaper said individulally the Brazillians are better players than those of the USA. What the USA cruised on was heart. It appears everyone is in agreement. The lousy calls and dives sure did set up one of the best games of any sport I have ever seen.

    It was a shot in the arm that US soccer has needed for some time. Now to take on France and keep the mommentum going.

    Dave Stincelli

  30. sports official

    very nice article and analysis of this game and of fifa officiating in general. as a sports official, it is my observation that fifa does not “train” their officials with any consistency and that there is no discussion prior to a big match as to how to handle situations like “flopping”. melksham early in the game started “thinking”, which is bad for any sports official.
    you must go into an important game on experience and instinct.
    once you are “thinking” you are no longer officiating, you are “watching the game” and you make mistakes. perhaps it is time in both the mens and women’s wc tournaments to have two referees for better coverage.

  31. Ben

    This was one of the best games I’ve ever seen in any sport, but that doesn’t mean we should pardon the referee. She was incompetent and offensive. Marta, too, was a classicly arrogant player, typical of Brazil. They always fiels good teams filled with excellent individual players, but lack cohesion. The title of “best player in the world” means nothing without the rest of the team. The U.S. players seemed to play in a way that made each of them better. Marta was out there for herself. The crowd simply sensed this. We all did. Brazil simply did not deserve to win.

  32. Laurent Dubois Post author

    Thanks Mickey, for your note and for catching that mistake — now fixed! I agree that the most important thing is that this match, precisely because of its drama and heroism, will hopefully help the further development of women’s soccer in the U.S. and beyond. To my mind, it was one of the great matches in the history of the game, period.

  33. Scott

    Thanks for your well-written and insightful article that helped me gain some perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of this international game. I have not been a soccer fan for most of my 44 years, but a son who loves the game, coupled with exposure to the game during the last Men’s World Cup (my wife and I watched the US tie Englan in a Dublin pub), are bringing me around. The one thing that may keep me from ever embracing this game is its poor officiating. I see this problem far too often for the handful of games I’ve watched. In Sunday’s game, it looked to me as if one of the refs was blind or had been paid to favor one side. Dreadful.

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  36. Mickey McRoberts

    Well done. Very insightful psychoanalysis–and so plausible. I do have one possible explanation for the crowd’s vilification of Marta: it was her comportment, her crappy body language. Rewind to the scene of Abby Wambach lying on the ground and Marta stomping around begging for a yellow, complaining to Ref. Melksham that Wambach had taken a dive and then yelling at her to get up [you just know that ESPN’s ad firm must have loved it!]. Crowds simply love to hate whiners. Was it theatrics? Who cares, because from where I was sitting this single match will do good things for the game of soccer in the US for years to come? I, too, am new to the sport (7 years) and think I am beginning to “get it” now.

    ‘They both went through grueling semi-final [CORRECTION: 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.’

  37. Bill

    I go along with most of your article. But booing against a player who has scored against you team is normal. Not vilifying. Her comments after the game should draw vilifying. Her comment that Brazil deserved to win was absurd. When you get the majority of breaks in a game and still lose. You did not deserve to win. Also her entire demeanor is not what you would expect from the supposed best player in the world. She gives of the attitude of arrogance and conceit; not self=assurance and confidence.

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  39. Laurent Dubois Post author

    A good question: I think as the next comment suggests dissent, which seems like it was pretty extreme. Unfortunately the lack of transparency in the FIFA process makes it hard to get answers to these questions, which is something I think fans and players deserve to have changed.

  40. Brian Todd

    The reason Marta was a villain was because on the initial penalty call it was a fair 50-50 challenge until Marta jumped and consequently flopped to the ground. Buehler didn’t push her down Marta’s attempt to jump and stab at the ball is what sent her to the turf. Defenders have as much right to the ball as the offensive player and fans get sick of referees rewarding theatrical offensive players flopping so easily. You notice that there were two other non calls when US players went down in the box, which I feel were correct. Just because a player goes down on a 50-50 ball doesn’t mean its a penalty. I think the German fans hate acting as much as the American fans.

  41. novaculus

    I don’t understand the willingness to accept as inevitable the cynicism that ranges from poor sportsmanship to outright cheating, the incompetency, cupidity, and bias of far too many FIFA officials, and the corrupt secret society that is FIFA.

    I have played and coached soccer at several levels. I never took a dive or tried to trick a ref into making a bad call. I never coached such tactics. I told my players that cheating doesn’t make you a winner, no matter the final score. It just makes you a cheater, and a thief. Not to mention that by never engaging in those tactics, the refs gained confidence in my players. If one of my guys went down in the box, there was no history of diving to make the ref wonder.

    Taking your time on a goal kick when you have the lead us one thing, diving and feigning injuries are another. Unlike the author, I was distressed to see US players flopping in the box at the end. The contemptible cynics of international soccer need to take a lesson from the US approach which generally disdains cheating tactics like diving and feigning injuries to waste time.

    We should continue playing the game with our own notions of sportsmanship and honor, not lower ourselves to the contemptible levels that FIFA accepts and even encourages.

  42. dennis

    nice article.
    question, though: if the PK decision was for encroachment, why did Solo get a yellow?

  43. Jim White

    I only watch soccer infrequently and mostly watch only the world cup. I too got caught up with the announcers in being frustrated with what seemed like poor refereeing and unfair calls on the US. However, in reading your article you make very valid points that this is just part of the game and you have to play through it, as the US team did. Other than maybe some excessive whining I also do not understand why Marta became the villain of the crowd either.

    About the only thing that possibly could be done is to try to incorporate instant replay reviews to validate some of the referee calls, but since soccer is a game with no time outs this does not seem to be feasible.

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