Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup Lessons: Be Thankful for NFL Officiating

Like many American football fans, I have taken to watching the Yanks in the World Cup over the past week.  And, I am happy to share with you the reason why Americans have had such a difficult time acclimating to the most popular sport everywhere else in the world.  Many point to the low scoring affairs, or even how games end in ties without the possibility of extra innings.  Other decry the commercial-free boredom of over-strategic bouncing of the ball back and forth for an attempt on goal every five minutes or so.

I've been able to work past those issues.  So why is it that Americans can't affinate with a sports that drives a near-global insanity?

That's it.  Because the sport itself is insane.

Americans have a charged relationship with its sports officials.  We ride the refs in basketball games, we scream for yellow flags to be thrown in football, and we question every called third strike.  But, in the end, those officials have a responsibility to the integrity of the sports they are presiding over, and in the end, while we don't agree with the calls, we respect them. 

Oh, sure, we know to expect anything when Jeff Tripllette is the referee, and we know Ed Hochuli will inundate us with over-explanations for his calls.  But, no matter what, the officials are responsible for making calls public to the teams and the fans.

But on Friday, we saw the American team mount a near-historic comeback after falling behind at halftime to Slovenia 2-nil (for those of you not familiar with soccer, this is like falling behind 28-0 at halftime of an NFL football game).  However, with only five minutes to play in regulation, a go-ahead goal by Team USA was called off by the official, Koman Coulibaly. 

The television screen showed an "offsides penalty" (for those of you not familiar with soccer, this is like cherry-picking in basketball), but it was clear that the Americans were not offsides.  Okay, to be honest, it wasn't clear to me, because I really don't quite understand what makes someone offsides and what doesn't, but it was really clear to the television commentators. 

Several replays were shown, and all we could see were Slovenians hanging all over Americans, and Maurice Edu succeeding in striking a goal despite nearly getting his ankle cut out under him.  But most of all, we saw midfielder Michael Bradley repeatedly and angrily asking Coulibaly to explain what the call was (first in English, then in French), but getting no response.

Do you get what I'm saying?  The referee disallowed the goal and never gave a reason.  Tweet:  no goal.  Can you imagine this happening in the NFL?  Greg Jennings catches a go-ahead touchdown with minutes to play, but Scott Green throws a yellow flag, gives the Packers a ten yard penalty, and takes the points off the board without identifying what the foul was, or who it was on?

Insanity.  Pure and simple. 

Like USA coach Bob Bradley, we all expected the official to explain himself soon after the game.  Nope.

We then expected a FIFA official to clarify or explain the ruling.  Nope.

We hoped perhaps someone would at least admit it was a bad call and apologize, even if it still meant the game ended in a tie.  Nope.  Apparently, it is the insane culture of soccer that the officials have full reign on the field, and nobody steps forward to correct it, even when it is clearly and egregiously wrong.

I awaited for word from some of our international soccer fans to come to the defense of the American team, but the response was essentially a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, "That's the way it is.  Now you Yanks can go what we went through back in 19-whatever, and have twenty years to be bitter about it."

My God...everyone accepts this insanity.  It's no wonder soccer fans around the world are as insane as they are, why every game seems to be life and death.  Soccer teams and their fans are not in control of their own destiny...the officials are, and the justice they dispense are almost on a whim.

There's a reason why I don't watch the NBA much anymore:  the game I loved (a la "Hoosiers") has been reduced too often to a game of players driving at the basket with the intention of drawing fouls.  But soccer takes that to new heights, with players quite literally flopping left and right and squalling to the ref to award them penalty kicks.  That's bad enough, but even in the limited World Cup action I've watched, the penalties are far from consistent.

In most of our US sports, while we may complain about refereeing, and even complain about critical calls (or non-calls) when it affects our team, there's mechanisms in place to keep the officiating on the level.  Obviously, in the NFL and the NBA, there is instant replay, with football coaches able to initiate them with a toss of a yellow flag.  Even more impressive is the willingness of the sports to discuss and explain critical calls after the game with the media, particularly the NFL.

Sure, the MLB still sticks with the old-time traditions of humans making the calls without recourse, but at least you know what the call is based on, whether it be whether a runner got in under the slide or not, or if the strike zone is a little higher than usual.  You may disagree with it, and instant replay could prove it wrong...but at least the ump said "safe" or "out".  He didn't just take a run off the board and walk away.

Think about poor Rob Green, the English goalie that muffed the American team into a draw with an inexplicable mishandling of a routine desperation kick from outside the box.  In addition to being immediately benched (despite playing a flawless game otherwise), he became the laughing stock of the Old World, and even his English Premier league may be out several million pounds as a result of public opinion.  You get the feeling that English fans will never let him forget this one mistake.  It could quite literally affect the rest of his career, and certainly, when he is on the visiting team in Jolly Old England, the fans will remind him of it for years.

American fans are usually more forgiving.  Even Aaron Rodgers' overtime fumble for a touchdown that ended the Packers' playoff run didn't reduce his value in the eyes of his coaches, teammates, and fans.  In fact, were all still quite fascinated with which ESPN commentators he's either dissing or dating lately.  American fans understand the game as a whole, and understand that many factors weigh in to a loss...that it doesn't come down to one play or one player.

For example, the goal that was disallowed last Friday was frustrating, but most American fans know that we should never have gotten down 2-0 to begin with, that our attacks were slow and our middle defenders were awry.  While upset about the call, we know that it should never have come down to that.

But if all our sports were officiated like World Cup soccer, well, I guess we'd all be a little insane, wouldn't we?


Chazman said...

I can remember the 1978 World Cup final (my how the time flies), Argentina was in the final and also the host of the World Cup. They went up by one goal late in the game and then proceeded to grab the ball and run around with it all to the consternation of the Dutch team. No calls by the officials who in fairness probably were in fear for their lives since it took place in Buenos Aires.
Point is . . . World Cup officiating makes Olympic judging look good.

PackersRS said...

Chazman, that whole WC was a joke. Do you remember that Argentina needed to make 6x0 against Peru to qualify, and curiously pulled it out? They flat out bought their goalie. The dictatorship of Argentina needed that title.

About refs, C.D., as a soccer fan myself, you're absolutely right. It drives us mad. But you know what's the reason behind all of it? It's because, according to FIFA, soccer played worldwide must have the same rules and conditions, so it's not correct that in the WC there is a technology for correcting refs mistakes that the Haitian national championship can't afford. The intent of soccer is to be kept as simple as possible, so it's able to spread more easily worldwide.

That's a load of B.S., as the haitian players don't have the same infra-structure and preparation as the EPL players do, but, like the article says, oh well...