What A Beautiful Game!

by zunguzungu

I watched the USA-Slovenia game this morning and I’m not bothered by Coulibaly’s calling a foul in minute 86 that took back the goal that would have given the USA the victory. In fact, I’m kind of enjoying it. A lot.

But for two different reasons. First, here’s why I’m not that bothered. If you look at the individual play, I’ll grant you it’s a mess; Coulibaly called USA’s Carlos Bocanegra for holding onto Slovene Jejc Pecnik illegally around the time Maurice Edu scored the goal, also around the time half a dozen other players fouled each other as well. As Simon Hayden pointed out, the real problem is that it’s become normal for free kicks to become free-for-alls, as this one did. It’s not like the foul made the goal possible, really, but you know what? It was a foul and he called it. And especially when there are a bunch of fouls like this, the refs tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the kicking team, to minimize the number of goals that come as a result of foul play. It was the sort of call he might — to put it this way — much more easily not have called, but it also was a not completely totally unreasonable call, just sort of bad.

Which is why the real point to make here is that bad calls are a part of the game. For example, when Clint Dempsey threw a high elbow early in the match, Coulibaly didn’t call a thing. And the free kick in the 86th minute should never have happened either; Jozy Altidore needs to save the clip of himself running into a Slovene and then falling down as if fouled for his Oscar reel, since it was a magnificent performance, and he well deserved the free kick for it. But you win some, you lose some; the fact that Coulibaly called more fouls for the US than against them is just one of those things. And if the USA was any other team than the USA, I would sympathize with them for catching a rough break; after getting their asses handed to them by a really charged up Slovenia in the first half, they returned the favor in the second, and good on them for it. They earned that tie — the Donovan goal, in particular, was real pretty — after earning an embarrassing loss in the first half of the game. But a tie was really all they earned; they dominated the second half after the Slovenes dominated the first. A tie seems about right.

What makes me really happy, however, is all you self-righteous American pig dogs crowing about how you had the game stolen from you. Welcome to the fucking World Cup! Does it taste bitter? Does it burn? Now hold that there, right there, on your tongue, for about a century. There! Welcome! The World Cup is pain, princess. Which is why I’m delighted to see people like Joe Posnanski or Peter King as just the first of the many insufferable sports buffoons we’re going to be hearing from in the next few days, the first of many American soccer idiots to demonstrate that we‘ve finally arrived. I mean that: no real soccer nation can be complete without jabbering idiots believing the world is against them because they lost and the refs are totally in the bag for the Slovenians, cause you know the Slovenes, right? Notorious for something, I’m sure, once we figure out who they are. Or this lovely inebriated fool, who stumbles over the name Slovenia and pronounces FIFA “fie-fa” as he proclaims about the anti-USA bias while walking through my neighborhood. It makes me happy to finally live in a country — and a neighborhood — where people can be insufferable asses about soccer. USA! USA! USA! The people who defaced Coulibaly’s wikipedia page, by the way, get a special zunguzungu seal of approval; well done, boys. Now if you can just get a good street riot started, you’ll really take the USA to the next level.

(I’ve been to Slovenia, by the way; it’s a beautiful country. Just wanted that out there, to bolster my smug patronizing aura. To order two beers, say “dva pivo.”)

Peter King’s SI column, for example, is really just run of the mill chauvinism; his dark mutterings about how Coulibaly — “from the landlocked West African country of Mali” — must be unprepared for his job since he only previously refereed in the African Cup of Nations is the sort of sports-commenter crypto racism that the US has been producing more and more of lately, but which has been pretty standard issue in Europe for quite a while. We’ll need more of that in the days to come, but don’t fool yourself: every newspaper in England has at least half a dozen writers capable of turning out that kind of performance at the drop of a hat. And his wailing indignation just demonstrates what an amateur hour dog and pony show he’s running. You get the idea that he really does think he’s the first soccer commentator to demand accountability from FIFA, which I bet he even knows how to pronounce. I hope someday he has the chance to cry and moan after a ref takes away his victory in the semifinals or the quarterfinals, or even the finals themselves. And maybe, just maybe, someday God himself will reach down onto the pitch and hand victory to his opponents.

But it’s Joe Posnanski who truly showed promise today. After a truly amazing story about some lady who doesn’t even like baseball just happening to be in the stands when Nolan Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter — and take note, kids, the incredible rambling tangent circling wide and than back is where the pros shine — he pivots suddenly to talk about the injustice we’ve just seen in Johannesburg:

…I thought about her Friday morning as I watched the United States soccer team put together one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of the World Cup. I thought about her and all those people in America who were watching world class soccer more or less for the first time.

And I was thinking just what an overmatched referee named Koman Coulibaly cost us all.

Understand: This was Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter. This was Jerry West’s 60-foot shot. This was Montana to Clark in the end zone. This was Bobby Orr’s flying goal. This was the young Tiger Woods at Augusta. This was all those things multiplied several times because this was happening on the giant stage, in the world’s biggest sporting event. A team does not come back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to win in the World Cup. It doesn’t happen. It had NEVER happened. In soccer at the World Cup level — with its impossible mix of passion and fury and consequence and vuvuzelas — each goal is a minor miracle. Two goals is something like insurmountable, especially when a team has shut you out for an entire half.

First of all, when Posnanski wrote that “A team does not come back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to win in the World Cup,” I suspect that what he meant to say was “I don’t care about 1970’s quarterfinal when West Germany came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 because it didn’t involve the USA (Go USA!).” Or perhaps he meant to say “I also don’t care about West Germany’s comeback from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 against Hungary in 1954, nor do I care about Portugal’s 1966 comeback from being down 3-0 to win 5-4, for the same reason. Go USA!”

He’s right about the miracle part, though, which is why I hold out hope he might someday be a real soccer writer. Every goal is a miracle. But Americans have been so used to the idea that God Bless America Fuck Yeah, and for so long, that we’re slow to remember the God of the World Cup is not your namby-pamby hippie love and peace God or your moronic God who gives a shit about your high school Basketball game, no, this is your old testament God smiting the shit out of people for no damn reason. Get used to it. Get used to losing, and feeling like the universe is against you because it is. Like flies to wanton boys are we to the soccer Gods. They disallow our goals for their sport.

But the rest of that piece, Oh! Cry me a river. The business about how “what an overmatched referee named Koman Coulibaly cost us all”? As if every ref isn’t always overmatched. As if the rules don’t state that the ref doesn’t have to say why he called a foul for a reason. As if it isn’t the point that a huge honking element of luck lives in the game and sometimes the not-better team wins. Ask Spain about that. Ask Germany. The not-better team often wins. And using the phrase “cost us” is like hanging a sign around your neck saying “I’ve never had to lose regularly enough to realize that it feels like life.” And the plaintive “Two goals is something like insurmountable, especially when a team has shut you out for an entire half,” makes me wish I had the world’s tiniest violin to play for him, for his pain in his team not having been rewarded for realizing — half way through the game — that maybe, just maybe, the way to get out of a hole is to stop digging! For Americans, that’s not bad.

And yet what really makes everything fall into place is this last monologue, in which he has the incredible stones to demand that “the World” transform its game so it can better pander to — no, seriously — American fans who aren’t really into Soccer:

The world has grown used to the foggy quirks of soccer — extra time, diving, stretchers for players who immediately run back out on the pitch, calls made without explanation. But most of us are not used to these things. And, for so many, this was a lousy introduction to the fog.

In the end, the draw gives the United States an excellent chance of advancing to the knockout round. If the U.S. beats Algeria, it probably will move on. But a victory would have given the U.S. an excellent chance to win the group. And a victory would have given a lot of people all across the country a moment to remember … and a story to tell when people asked, “So, when did you become a soccer fan?”

Instead, it will baffle a lot of people who wanted something to remember. And it will give a lot of people who didn’t like soccer in the first place a chance to say: “What the heck was that?”

What if that lady had wandered into Arlington and complained that a no-hitter was really boring and that maybe they should move the mound farther away from the plate to make it more exciting? Not so much, huh? So maybe the point of the World Cup isn’t actually to interest as many oblivious Americans as possible to a sport the rest of the world is doing a nice job with all by themselves. Maybe they like their World Cup more or less the way it is, and maybe a whole bunch of Americans who think the rules should be changed because the rules didn’t allow US TO WIN are sort of hilariously adorable. And maybe openly acknowledging that Americans will only like soccer if they win at it isn’t quite the most persuasive way to argue that the rules should be changed to match American expectations? It is, however, a nice start for my country, who I may even start rooting for from now on. USA!