Conspiracy or Ineptitude: Why Do So Many Bad Calls Seem to Go Against the US Soccer Team?

Ken Gude has some thoughts on all the calls going against the US at the World Cup.

It wasn’t the first time in this game that there were odd calls – all going against the US – in and around the Slovenan box. One play Dempsey was wrestled to the ground in the box, no call. On another, he was body check as Altidore got off a snap shot. Altidore was blocked off just outside the box by the last defender that only drew a yellow card. One earlier decision saw Altidore thrown down this time near the midway line only to find the infraction whistled on the American. You might think the ref just plain didn’t like the United States.

Its not as if this is the first time this has happened to the US team in a World Cup. We all remember the truly shocking no call in the 2002 quarterfinal against Germany when Torsten Frings made a brilliant save with his left hand. The only problem is that Torsten Frings is a midfielder, the German goalie was cleanly beaten. Penalty and red card. Except not that time. Flash forward four years to the final group game for the US against Ghana when we needed a win to go through. After another slow start the US had equalized when a poor clearance from Bocanegra at left back towards the top of the box. Gooch and a Ghanaian attacker go for the ball, the Ghanaian player goes down, penalty. Ghana covert, go up 2-1 and that is that.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that every word of that Gude describes here is accurate. The US team has been on the wrong end of its share of bad calls, and some of them have been critically damaging. These aren’t the rantings of a blind American homer, either – observers from around the world are saying the same things about the infamous disallowed third goal, and you’re going to see FIFA quietly admit it tomorrow, too, when they send the ref (Mali’s Koman Coulibaly) home.

But Gude goes a step further, suggesting that there’s something more than garden-variety bad officiating at work. He suspects a broader anti-American conspiracy, although he doesn’t phrase it quite that way.

This piece of his analysis needs a closer look. For starters, Gude isn’t some typical American football fan who just watched his first soccer game. As his bio explains, he’s an active ambassador for the game (it probably isn’t fair to hold his love of Liverpool against him in this context). So we’re dealing with an informed opinion.

Which is why I’m a little perplexed. Because if you’ve watched as much top-flight international soccer and international competition as Gude has, by now it ought to be clear that bad refs are the rule, not the exception. Yes, we got hosed, but isn’t just the US. Go ask Germany about the inexplicable red card on Miroslav Klose in the Serbia match, for instance. This tournament alone has already seen three or four examples of officiating so bad it’s hard to understand how the referees were selected for the most prestigious tournament in the world. Did I say three or four? The Bleacher Report digs even deeper.

This is the best FIFA has to offer?

Well, not exactly. You find the best refs in the countries with the highest level of play, as a rule, but in a global tournament there’s, shall we say, a political mandate to be as inclusive as possible. I saw nothing in Mr. Coulibaly’s performance to suggest that he could get a job calling rec league games in Aberdeen. So the structure of the tournament itself opens the door to a certain amount of risk – I mean, you can’t have all the games called by Brits, Italians, Spaniards and Germans. (And even if you could, you’d still have problems: the Germany-Serbia ref was Spanish and who can forget the colossal blunder of English official Graham Poll, who in the 2006 Cup issued three yellow cards to a Croatian player without sending him off?) Some of the problem is explained by the fact that soccer is a complex, fast-paced game that’s simply hard to ref (and I say this as a guy who has called more than 1,000 games in his life). Some of it, but by no means all of it. It’s hard, but it isn’t that hard.

The bottom line, for better or worse, is that tragic officiating is as much a part of the game as the goal kick. Period. As a result, it’s difficult to see that the American team has any special claim on injustice.

Now, all that said, it’s true that US soccer doesn’t get much respect from the rest of the world. Part of that owes to the fact that we haven’t earned a lot of respect with our skill (although that’s getting a little better in recent years). We’re just not as good as much of the rest of the world. This isn’t our game – around the globe kids have a soccer ball on their feet before they leave the crib, but here it’s our fifth or sixth choice. We get the same level of respect in soccer as we accord the Brits in basketball, and for the same reasons. Know what? That’s fair.

I also have no doubt that part of the dynamic is political. There are many nations around the world with no real reason to love us, and that carries over into sport. But does this indicate the existence of an anti-American bias by officials? Especially since, as noted above, it’s hard to demonstrate that we have it any worse than anybody else?

I’ve never seen the calls that have gone against us in the Cup as politically motivated (although I dread CONCACAF qualifiers – the basic level of officiating talent in this region is bad to start with and if you’re looking for places where people aren’t 100% in love with all things American, Latin America ain’t a bad place to start). There have been international matches where I knew we were going to get zero calls as a result of the where the ref was from but I’ve always chalked this up to soccer culture, not politics. And I can’t overstate the power of soccer culture – how the game is played is an expression of national identity and pride, and these things are often beyond irrational. I’ve been on the pitch with plenty of people who didn’t have anything against us politically, necessarily, but who hated our guts where the game was concerned.

Back to Gude’s suspicion that the calls against us are, shall we say, targeted. It’s possible – politics and sport don’t always play nice with each other, and those who remember our Olympic boycott and the travesty of the 1972 Olympic basketball final don’t need to have this explained to them.

But I have a basic rule when it comes to assessing conspiracy theories: never chalk up to conspiracy that which can be easily explained by basic incompetence. After all, incompetence is humanity’s greatest natural resource, and soccer refs, as a group, tend to have far more than their share. In the US-Slovenia match, all you had to do was look at Mr. Coulibaly’s face to see how utterly out of his depth he really was. He didn’t need to hate America to blow that call. Cluelessness sufficed.

Gude may be right, but for the time being I need more evidence. Please, I pray to the soccer gods, do not show it to me Wednesday in our match vs. Algeria…

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  1. Matt Browner Hamlin
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Of course, bringing political views onto the pitch as a ref is another sign of incompetence and unprofessionalism.

    Another issue that makes it seem like we’re always hit with bad calls that affect the outcomes of games is that we actually aren’t that good a team yet. By creating fewer opportunities to win, we increase the chances a bad call will influence the outcome of our games. To wit, had we not given up two soft goals in the first half against Slovenia, our two goals in the second half would have been enough for us to advance and the incorrectly disallowed goal by Edu would not have kept us from getting two more points.

  2. Posted June 22, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Right. The ref problem is its own issue, but any athlete with a half a brain knows that when you play badly you make yourself vulnerable. If the US had shown up in the first half the official wouldn’t have been able to hurt them.

    Kudos to the ABC/ESPN crew, especially Alexi Lalas, for reiterating this very point.

  3. Posted June 22, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Also – I know that folks keep on saying stuff like “fire Bradley! Hire Klinsmann! (or other big name coach)”.

    Given our lack of skill in some pretty fundamental areas like ball-handling, I don’t know how hiring Klinsmann would fix that, since those skills are more easily acquired when we’re younger.

    I guess what I’m saying is: would the results we’ve seen so far be *markedly* different here if someone else were the coach? I suspect not.

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