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…

5 replies »

  1. I tend to agree. I’ve watched most of the games in this tournament. and bad refereeing has affected many of them, although I would also say not a majority. I know Americans are always trying to turn themselves into victims, but it doesn’t work this time.

    Some other observations:

    1. With the exception of Honduras, no Central or South American team has lost yet. And Honduras lost to Chile. At present (and we still have a ways to go, admittedly), five of the eight groups are being led (or co-led) by teams from Central or South America–Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, which is tied with Mexico for the lead in Group A.
    2. The only teams to have won both their games so far are Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands.
    3. The combined record of the 2006 finalists (Italy and France) so far is no wins, three draws, and one loss. Heh.
    4. African teams are not doing well. One of the best and most fun to watrch, Cameroon, is already out of the tournament mathematically. The only African team to have won a game so far is Ghana. And the overall record to date of the six African teams is one win, four ties, and seven losses. Still a ways to go here. They’re sort of where the US team was eight or 12 years ago–solid ground game, very fast, pretty good defense, but a shortage of real striking capability. Brazil/Nigeria was emblematic–Nigeria lost, but only by a 1-0 score. Some glory could be salvaged if South Africa beats France tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a hoot.
    5. As far as the USA team goes, they play well, but clearly got lucky in Game one in salvaging a tie. In Game two, they were completely outplayed in the first half by a country with a population of 2 million–a bit smaller than the population of Houston. They did dominate in the second half, but the trick here is not to go down 2-0 in the first place.
    6. The game of the tournament (so far): Denmark/Cameroon. At first it looked as if Cameroon was going to run Denmark off the field, but Denmark regrouped, came back and ended up dominating the second half. But what a game! It had everything football is supposed to have–excitement, excellent playmaking, occasional flurries of chaos, swings in dominance and tempo, lots and lots of shots on goal, and essentially still in doubt up to the end, given the final 2-1 score. Great fun–too bad all the games couldn’t be like this! OTOH, we’d all be exhausted if they were.

    • I’m especially surprised at the lack of success among the African teams. I don’t think any of them are ready to go deep in the tournament yet, but there are some very good teams and they do have a strong home-field advantage.

      Watch for Ghana in 2014, though. They only have two players older than 24 on this team, Essien will hopefully be healthy, Gyan is an emerging superstar, etc. On paper, at least, that’s potentially one of the best sides in African history in the making.

  2. Agreed. They’re almost there. They certainly play entertaining football, sort of the opposite of the France/Uruguay travesty.

    And today’s carnage–Portugal certainly had a good time against North Korea. Six goals in the second half. I’m afraid we’re looking at some organ donors here.

    Unlucky Switzerland–lost a man after 30 minutes. Did well considering, but it was a weird game in terms of shooting–there were a bunch of almost goals for Chile, and a couple for Switzerland as well. Lots of missed opportunities on both sides, but more for Chile. So it could have gone either way in terms of scoring, even though Chile dominated with the man advantage they had for most of the match. Keeps the record of the South American teams not losing a match outside the continent alive–actually, that’s true for the entire western hemisphere, isn’t it, since the US and Mexico haven’t lost a match either. Honduras, which lost to Chile, will test that tonight against Spain.

    Now I’m just hoping that South Africa will pull off an upset of France tomorrow.