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Foul Enough

Alex Massie is a smart and fair-minded man, but in this case he is wrong—at least, by the standards he lays out. Alex argues, drawing on this post by Simon Haydon, that because Carlos Bocanegra did indeed foul Nejc Pečnik on Landon Donovan’s 86th-minute cross into the Slovenian box, referee Koman Coulibaly was indeed warranted—or at least not unwarranted—in making the call he made.

Alex actually defends the decision more strongly than Haydon. Haydon’s view is that Coulibaly just called what was right in front of him and probably didn’t see the other fouls, whereas Alex wants to argue that Bocanegra’s act was the Foul Most Foul because “Pečnik . . . was the Slovenian defender best placed to deal with the free-kick. In other words, the foul on him had an impact on the game in a way that others committed at that moment did not.”

It’s hard to tell from the replays I’ve seen, but I don’t see how Pečnik could have gotten to that service, and I don’t think he was any closer to the play than Michael Bradley, who was being publicly ravished by Aleksandar Radosavljević. (Lord, I love copy and paste.) By everyone’s accounting there were multiple fouls by Slovenia on that play, and I don’t think there’s a calculus that succeeds in erasing all of them and leaving only Bocanegra’s. Well, except Coulibaly’s. And his calculus is the one that counts.

Thus Alex is right about one thing, anyway: that there is a Bigger Picture here that we ought to attend to. For him, that B.P. is that “the referee is the referee and his word is final and it doesn’t matter if he’s wrong. That’s part of the game.” Moreover, “players can’t control the referee’s decisions. They certainly aren’t responsible for them. They are, however, responsible for their own actions”—and the U.S. dug itself a hole in the first half without assistance from Coulibaly.

Quite true. Annoyingly true. But I want to suggest that there’s another Bigger Picture to attend to: the fact that professional soccer referees in general disallow a lot of goals produced by set pieces, especially corner kicks. They see the scrum, they know people are being fouled, and they tend to call the fouls on the scoring team because of the elementary truth that in soccer goals are rare and valuable.

In a shocking number of matches one goal will be decisive, and the likelihood of decisiveness increases dramatically late in a match. (Yes, I know I am stating the obvious here, but sometimes I need to remind myself, or be reminded, of the obvious.) Referees simply do not want to be accused of “giving the game” to a team, and as harshly as they will be criticized for failing to allow a valid goal, that criticism is almost never as fierce as what they receive when they allow a goal that should have been waved off. When they wave off goals, they tend to be sneered at above all for incompetence; when they wrongly allow one, they’re more likely to be ripped for mendacity or other bias—again, precisely because goals are rare and valuable: they’re like a king’s extravagant gift to his discreditable mistress. To disallow always seems a less dramatic and morally freighted act.

It’s impossible to imagine that referees don’t make these calculations—not in the heat of the moment itself, I suspect, but in the long stretches between games. And those calculations will carry weight when decision-time comes. Which is of course what makes many misguided people want to bring instant replay into the game—but that wouldn’t have been of any use here. No reply could disentangle and rightly judge all that happened in the few instants between the swing of Landon Donovan’s leg and the ball’s punching the back of Slovenia’s net. So while I started out by saying that Alex is wrong, I end by saying that he’s right, about this anyway: supporters of the U.S. team are just going to have to deal with it.

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Foul Enough

by Alan Jacobs · June 19, 2010

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