Don’t Cry for Me Mr. Coulibaly

The U.S. has finished its first two of three group stage games at the World Cup, and, despite an air of disappointment about the side after Friday’s events, we control our own destiny to advance to the next round. We knew going in that we would likely need a win against Algeria or Slovenia to move forward to the knockout stage, and three points taken from the scrappy Frenchmen (I mean Algerians) on Wednesday will get the job done.

If we don’t win, the scenarios get more complicated and perhaps require math or a Friday Night Lights-style coin flip. The Christian Science Monitor has the most cogent explanation. As unlikely as it may be, the idea of a coin flip to decide whether England or the U.S. advances in the World Cup is such a juicy proposition that it is hard to entirely ignore. But the fact is, unless England win, a draw likely puts us through as well.

Will England win? You don’t see it happening if they play like they have for two matches and Slovenia comes out looking only for the single point they need to advance. But there is certainly enough English quality for them to turn the tide, and it will be interesting to see if the wizard Fabio Cappello (the Phil Jackson of world football) can break through whatever mental fog has been holding his squad back.

So why the air of disappointment in the U.S. camp given this optimistic scenario?  Because we got hosed on Friday.  We went from agony, to ecstasy, to super-ecstasy to “Huh?”.

"Pardon me, sir. Could I have a word, please?"

“Huh?” quickly turned to outrage from the U.S. players, and that outrage has cast a pall over what was an otherwise stirring comeback from two goals down to keep our World Cup dreams alive.  In case you didn’t see it, read about it, or hear somebody talking about it, briefly:

We scored two great goals in the second half to come back from the dead and get even at 2-2 with a few minutes to play. This was fantastic. If it had ended there, we would have counted it a famous result and moved on confidently to face Algeria.

But on a freekick in the last few minutes there was much jostling about in front of goal, including – replays clearly showed – at least three U.S. players who had both arms of a Slovenian defender wrapped firmly around their belly…you know, just trying to help them out because they were choking on a pretzel or something.

One lone American, Maurice Edu, was somehow able to wriggle free from his personal good Samaritan and hammer the ball into the top of the net for the apparent winning goal. But the yellow-shirted gentleman pictured above blew his whistle and waved it off. Chaos ensued.

It what counts as mouth-foaming invective for the BBC, they say that the U.S. winning goal was “harshly ruled out” for an “alleged pull.”  SI‘s slightly less-cultured Peter King is unable to contain himself – having recently had a personal revelatory experience at the soccer tent revival that is the World Cup – and he urges that we all take up pitchforks and torches and march to Sepp Blatter’s secret Swiss volcano lair to demand justice or exact revenge. Many, like this San Francisco Chronicle piece, go so far as to suggest that the degree of reaction shows soccer has now (re)entered the American cultural mainstream.

For what it is worth, I have surmised that the unfortunate Mr. Coulibaly-from-Mali went to blow his whistle to give us a penalty kick, briefly thought better of it, saw the ball go in the goal and then panicked.  Landon Donovan strayed ever-so-close to cultural insensitivity when he mused in his postgame remarks about whether the ref couldn’t speak English or simply wouldn’t speak. But the fact is that FIFA has a well-known policy of assigning referees gathered from the four corners of the globe to officiate important World Cup matches, and that policy, well intentioned as it may be, sometimes puts referees out of their depth – if only from having never before been in the spotlight on this big of a stage or having not routinely seen players of this quality in action.

Mr. Coulibaly himself refereed the most recent African Cup of Nations final, so he is hardly a stranger to high-intensity tournaments and is considered among the best on the continent.  And Ravshan Irmatov, the Uzbek referee selected for the opening match between Mexico and the hosts South Africa, by all accounts performed admirably. Nevertheless, this was Coulibaly’s first World Cup game, and he did not look at all comfortable in the crucial moments at the end.

But here is the thing. Referees mess up, sometimes horrifyingly so in the biggest games. What we got here was hardly the worst that anyone has ever endured. Just ask Ireland, who are watching this one from back home because Thierry Henry’s egregious handball went undetected by the match officials in the clinching qualifier last year. The French are in South Africa (predictably imploding), and the Irish are home crying in their Guinness. We still have a fighting chance to keep playing, which is the real story.

We haven’t been great, conceding early goals in both games and appearing to lack focus at times, but we have played very well through two games, and are thus in position to qualify despite being subjected to Mr. Coulibaly’s cruel ministrations.

Good teams move past stuff like this. If Bob Bradley’s boys can do that and figure out how to get through the first 15 minutes without giving up a goal, they could be dangerous. They, along with all of South America, have been playing some of the only interesting football in what has been an otherwise very tight first round.

It all comes crashing down if we can’t get a result against Algeria. Isn’t this fun?

As many the Beverage’s readers (all 22 or so at last count) may have noted on Facebook, there’s been some substantial computer tinkering going on around here this week, so our next post will leave the World Cup for a moment to enter Mac world. But hopefully we will be back in a week or so sizing up the U.S. chances in the next round.

3 Responses to “Don’t Cry for Me Mr. Coulibaly”

  1. 1 Telly Fathaly June 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    That’s a quality take Bev. I just saw the replay for the first time and from his angle and the the point he seemed to have prepared / began to prepare his whistle, the timing of it all seems to support your thesis. Well done.

  2. 2 Derron June 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Good take. So, what’s the explanation for today’s 2 scored for one goal tally? I think bad luck, and thanks to Landon for saving the ref for his mistake.

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