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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is the Fix in at the World Cup?

I'm old enough to remember the final men's basketball game in the 1972 Olympics, where a befuddled at best and corrupt to the core at worst referee gave the game to the Soviet Union, taking a win away from the American team. That game haunts people of my generation to this day, because the outcome was egregious.

Fast forward to today, where a linesman called what appeared to be at best a phantom off-side call against the U.S. after the Americans scored a goal in the first half. Unless I missed something, no one was offside, and the goal should have counted.

Fast forward to late in the second half, where, despite many chances, the U.S. team was tied 0-0 with the game entering the injury time phase. Had the game ended in a draw, the U.S. team would be on a flight home by now, with England and Slovenia advancing. Instead, on a fast break two minutes into extra time, the best U.S. player, Landon Donovan, scored a goal off a rebound, giving the Americans a 1-0 victory and, perhaps, saving the credibility of World Cup soccer and, perhaps, soccer, in the United States.

Why? Because had the U.S. drawn Algeria and headed home, anyone with any interest would have had the right to say, "Well, the international referees hate the United States, the officiating is either corrupt or incompetent, and since you can't get an honest count, why bother watching? It's a farce." And the evidence would have supported them. Had the U.S. headed home, Americans would have migrated from the game in droves, owing in large part to the horrid officiating.

Instead, the U.S. is the fun underdog to watch. They play hard, they're feisty, and they're up against a stacked deck of the people who run FIFA and the officiating crews. Sure, you would favor the Americans in Olympic basketball, but the rest of the world seems to see the U.S. as an unworthy interloper and wants the U.S. team gone from their sport in the worst way. So there's the U.S. team, friendless, the relatively new kid, battling uphill for respect. Americans love an underdog, and they'll respect greatly a team that has gotten bad calls twice in a row and still has overcome them. It's a great story, at least for now.

Because something tells me that the palpably inept officiating will continue into the elimination rounds. And then the U.S.'s Cinderella season might come to an abrupt end because of yet another phantom off-sides call, a poorly judged yellow or red card, or something even casual observers have not seen before. I hope that I am wrong about that. In any event, anyone with any integrity at FIFA has to be annoyed and should be primed to take some action. If we expect the play in the World Cup to be top notch, we also should have the same standards for officials.

Normally I take the view that officiating evens out, because the best officials are the ones you don't remember because they do a competent job. But in this World Cup (and in the qualifying game between France and Ireland where a Thierry Henry handball inside the goal mouth decided the game in France's favor), we are noticing the officials more and more. And that's not good for the World Cup or the game. There are many good referees, and they should take a stand with FIFA to make sure the inept ones don't tarnish their good names.

To date, though, outside the vuvuzuelas and the implosion of the French team, the story is the officiating.

And that's never a good sign for any event, let alone perhaps the premier sporting event in the world.


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