The Front Row with JOHN LEICESTER June 22, 2010
JOHANNESBURG (AP) - "We wuz robbed!" Americans cried after referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali disallowed their World Cup goal.
Perhaps they were.
Perhaps they weren't.
Fabulous. Now, at least, they've got something to talk about.
Because the beauty of a sport that refuses to use video technology for critical decisions, that accepts flaws as part of its fabric, is that there will always be dubious calls and human mistakes.
Not that Coulibaly necessarily made one.
Maybe he did.
Maybe he didn't.
But it was his call, not a machine's. And because of that, we can all now have an opinion, something to disagree about vehemently over a beer or around the watercooler. Having stuff like this to get worked up about is not to be underestimated.
Imperfect calls in tennis used to generate such treasured gems as John McEnroe howling "You cannot be serious! That ball was ON the line!" at a genteel Wimbledon referee.
Now Hawkeye robs us of the twisted pleasure of such tirades. Not even SuperBrat would have been able to argue with its all-seeing eye.
OK, yes, it is much fairer for McEnroe's heirs that technology can now say for certain whether the ball was in or out. But what does that leave us to disagree about? It is still sport - but perhaps with less passion. So a dash of ambiguity, errors here and there, are not necessarily always a bad thing.
Football is an imperfect sport, and a massive generator of opinion because of it.
Geoff Hurst's goal in the 101st minute of the 1966 World Cup final is legendary precisely because no one is entirely sure whether the ball crossed the line after smashing into the crossbar. Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov decided that it did. But it is still a matter of opinion. Because of that, we're still writing about it 44 years later.
If there must be a villain in the Coulibaly affair, then it is football's rule-makers for sending referees out onto a World Cup pitch with only three other officials to help them.
FIFA knows full well that four pairs of eyes cannot see everything that happens on the field of play. It is allowing trials with two extra officials to police penalty areas where players often wrestle and tussle,but it decided not to extend that experiment to this World Cup. That was because non-European countries feared their referees weren't familiar enough with the change, which will be used in Europe in the Champions League next season, and that they might, therefore, make embarrassing mistakes on football's biggest stage.
FIFA also has a major allergy to technology that could tell when balls cross goal-lines or catch the likes of Thierry Henry red-handed when they illegally fondle the ball or otherwise cheat. For better or worse, FIFA says human errors are part of the game. The bright side of that aversion to modern refereeing aids is that we'll always have no end of decisions to argue about.
For what it's worth, my take on Coulibaly is that he called it right. He seems to have spotted and blown his whistle for one of several fouls that U.S. players were committing when Landon Donovan fired his free kick into the Slovene penalty area. U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra had an arm around the waist of Nejc Pecnik and defender Jay DeMerit was wrestling with Slovenian Bostjan Cesar, with his hand on his neck.
Coulibaly was blowing before Maurice Edu's shot hit the back of the Slovene net. To Coulibaly, at least, the decision seems to have been clear. Nor should Coulibaly have turned a blind-eye to such fouling just because other referees often do.
Slovene players were grabbing hold of Americans, too. But two wrongs don't make a right. Just because they were also in violation doesn't mean that Edu's goal should have stood.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley disagrees. He insists that the goal which would have given his team a 3-2 victory was good.
But that is nothing more than his opinion. There simply is no foolproof way of being sure Coulibaly got it right.
Maybe he did.
Maybe he didn't.
Want to talk about it?
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.