Walk Away, Ref

by zunguzungu

It was pointed out to me yesterday that one of the great things about soccer is that since the clock never stops, the players really don’t have time to vent their spleen at the referee when a call goes wrong. This is absolutely right: in baseball, play proceeds when the players are ready for it to proceed, so if they want to kick dust at the ref and act like idiots, they can. But soccer players lack that luxury; no matter how bad the call was, you have to get back on defense/offense. The game goes on, and so must they.

Note, for example, how the Sean Ingle of the UK Guardian’s live blog narrates the USA-Slovenia draw after the hyper-contested Coulibaly call:

NO GOAL! Donovan curled a freekick from the right into the packed box. Edu met it on the volley and blasted in from close range! But the referee’s whistle had already gone so it won’t count. Quite why the referee’s whistle had gone is not clear – there was no offside and the only fouls being perpetrated were by Slovenians holding on to assorted American jerseys. Mystifying decision.

87 min: Ohhhhhh! Pecnik whipped in a cross from the left and Novakovic nodded towards goal. But his connection wasn’t the cleanest, meaning Howard was able to stop it without much ado.

89 min: It’s all Slovenia again! Radosavlejic sends in a swirler from 25 yards and Howard bats it all the way out for a throw-in on the right.

90 min: There will be three more minutes. “The USA jersey looks like a Scotland one ripped in half,” notes Simon Harley. “Much better.”

90+2 min: Dempsey and Pecnik are down in the middle after the American fell on to the Slovenian’s leg, twisting it nastily. Pecnik, in fact, has to come off.

Full-time: Another triumphant draw for the US. They were outclassed in the first half but, thanks to tactical changes and swashbuckling spirit, they stormed back for a deserved equaliser. Indeed, it looked to me like they should have won, since I saw nothing wrong with the goal that was ruled out. Anyway, they’ll fancy their chances of reaching the next round now, with Algeria to come. Thanks for tuning in and contributing. Goodbye.

He briefly gets excited, then gets back to the game. American commentators never moved on from minute 86. Alexi Lalas’ post game commentary was delightfully partisan, for example; he was ready to tear out Coulibaly‘s still-beating heart from his deceitful Malian corpse, hold it before his expiring eyes, and then blot out the sun above Mali with drones in search of yellowcake. But it’s telling, I think, how barely interested Sean Ingle is in talking about the blown call at all. The game goes on, and while he acknowledges again, in closing, that the call was mystifying, the story for him isn’t the injustice of that moment but the big picture: Slovenia won the first but the US clawed its way back in the second for a “triumphant draw” and will probably advance as a result.

Almost none of this could have been written by an American commenter, and not only because of the kind of partisanship nationalism by which being against the American soccer team is conflated with hating America. Try to imagine an American sportswriter using the phrase “triumphant draw.” Americans don’t understand that the goal is only the payoff for the exciting stuff that precedes it, which is why they don’t understand why ties — even 0-0 ties — are awesome. If you’ll indulge me for a minute, the problem with most American soccer watchers is that they’re only interested in the goals and the results; the beauty of two systems colliding in barely-almost-comprehensible and vertigo inducing complexity is lost on them, because they want to reduce everything to box scores, to numbers, to forms. But as this hilariously Heideggerian way of reading soccer formations as Dasein demonstrates, you miss the point if you do so. Real soccer fans see the lead up to a goal and the many almost-goals that don’t quite happen, while bad soccer fans and Americans are people who don’t understand the difference between sex and pornography, who think that scoring is the only thing that counts.


Now let’s look at how the NY Times’ live blogger, Jeff Klein, covered those closing moments:


A total dive, but it gives the Americans a free kick outside the area!

85th minute |GOAL USA … BUT NO! A FOUL! NO GOAL!

The free kick from Donovan was headed in by Edu, but the Malian ref called a foul and waved off the goal! BUT THERE DIDN’T SEEM TO BE ANY FOUL!

87th minute |Chaos in Jo’burg!

The Malian referee has become the central figure in this match! He has made a hash of this game as he did the African Cup final in January!

AND NOW A SLOVENIAN HEADER! But it’s caught in front of goal by Howard! Close call!

Aside from the fact that using! an! exclamation! mark! for! every! sentence! is Judge Parker-ian in its stylistics of performed enthusiasm, note two things:

  • NY Times’ Klein places the goal first and then the Coulibaly call-back. UK Guardian’s Sean Ingle noted at the time — correctly — that the foul was called well before the goal was kicked.
  • Klein seamlessly moves from the anguished “BUT THERE DIDN’T SEEM TO BE ANY FOUL!” to the declaration that “The Malian referee…has made a hash of this game,” while Ingle maintains a bemused skepticism; the call looked bad to him, but he doesn’t dwell on it. The game goes on.

In fact, Klein’s juxtaposition of righteous all-caps indignation with shallow comprehension of what’s going on sort of tells the whole story: even as he missed something important — that the play was already called dead before the goal was scored — he still triumphantly declares his own interpretation of the play to be more correct than that of the “Malian referee,” of whom he knows only that he has a reputation for blown calls (after all, how many people think Klein actually saw the African Cup? And how many of you think he read a canned “Malian ref makes controversial calls” memo that was prepared for him?). Because the important point here is that Klein wasn’t sure he was right and Coulibaly was wrong, and couldn‘t be; yet while he admits that there didn’t “seem” to be a foul, he has no discomfort in instantly declaring that the ref was wrong (the play by play people I heard were exactly the same, declaring the goal to have been wrongly taken back while still trying to figure out why it had been taken back). Klein did this repeatedly, in fact; in his halftime musings, for example, he wrote in bold that “Ref’s error means Findley misses next game” but then wrote this “The referee thought the American forward handled the ball, which on replay and in live action from my vantage point in the media tribune appeared to hit him in the face.” Note that what appears to be the case to an American commenter trumps what the referee thought he saw; Klein isn’t even sure he’s right before he declares the “Malian ref” to be in error.

Which is why I want to! make! as! clearly! as! possible! a distinction which a few irate mouthbreathers that commented on that last post skated over obliviously: the call sucked, in retrospect, and I didn’t deny that; what interested me was the silly and noobish ways American sports writers responded to that shitty call. I wasn’t trying to defend the call as having been correct but just to provide some perspective: since FIFA rules state that referees don’t have to explain why they make the calls they do, the best we can do is try to figure out why he might have made the call he did. In which case, if he had only seen the fray between Bocanegra and Pecnik (who were right in front of him), he would have had a certain justification in calling back the play. It would still have been (as I said) “a not completely totally unreasonable call, just sort of bad.” But it wouldn’t have been anywhere as ridiculous as American homers have enjoyed convincing themselves it was.

The interesting thing, then, is the very different expectations and assumptions the American commenters bring to the game: that they have a right to win. Seriously, look at the sequence in that Klein live-blog. While he noted beforehand that the free-kick only came about because the game allows a certain form of cheating  — if you can get away with it, pretending that you were fouled is legal — he is APPALLED! when an unfair call goes against his side. When a ref’s mistake goes against the Slovenes all is well and its just the way the game is played; when a call goes against the Americans, on the other fucking hand, I want that “Malian Ref” DEAD!!!!!111111!!!!!

Perfectly reasonable behavior for a sports-fan in the moment, of course — in the kingdom of the sports-fans, the reasonable person is blind — but the fact that being biased and unreasonable is what sports-fans do doesn’t make it reasonable, it just makes it normal. Yet when sports columnists pretend to be reasonable, and when people try, in all seriousness, to get a referee removed from the tournament because he ruled against their team, they just show themselves to be normal sportsfans, normal assholes, invested with greater power.

To illustrate why, skip to about 6:20 in the video below:

In that scene — a basketball game between two rival drug gangs — the referee fails to call a foul and the Eastside wins. Avon Barksdale, the Westside kingpin, starts shouting at the ref about the foul he didn‘t call, which puts the ref in an awkward position, because, you know, Barksdale kills people. You don’t want to non-call a foul against him because he might kill you. So the ref does what any reasonable person would do, and tries to placate both sides, offering a do-over. Which only makes Barksdale angrier, but in a different way, disgusted and contemptuous. That’s not how the game is played, he says; there are no do-overs. Morphing beautifully into disgust and frustration with an incompetent, he sternly lectures the ref to stand up for himself and walk away. The ref’s job is not to placate a biased coach but to maintain his authority, to mediate.

What makes the scene great is that both of these powerful and murderous men are trying to play, and failing. Barksdale jibes at prop Joe for dressing in a suit and holding a clipboard like Pat Riley, but he’s playing too, trying to play the role of enraged coach arguing a call not because he’s right but because a coach — like a defense attorney — always advocates for his players. That’s what the coach’s job is. The problem is that, when you’re a drug lord with a history of murdering people when convenient, the referee isn’t in a position to overrule you. Barksdale can’t play. He can’t get in a referee’s face without that power imbalance coming into focus; when he has more power than the referee, the game is destroyed.

After all, for sports to work, the referee has to be both a black box and the final authority. And yet Coulibaly is about to be destroyed for getting in the way of the United States, whose coach, players, fans, and sports writers have none of the understanding that Barksdale shows in that clip above. Landon Donovan was acting like a douche when he gets all huffy about how the ref wouldn’t explain the call to him; the ref doesn’t explain himself to you. He makes the call and moves on. Complain if you want, but the game is what happens on the field, and that’s where players are to put their energy. And if you attack a ref for ruling against you (or expect the miscalls against you to be corrected), you destroy the game. It would be like accusing  people that serving as defense lawyers for accused terrorists of being terrorists themselves, when they‘re the ones trying to make it possible for terrorists to have fair trials, and, therefore, fair convictions. (Which, of course, we do as well)

I mean, seriously, you have to be pretty silly to think Coulibaly would be getting an “expedited performance review” if he had mis-ruled in favor of Slovenia; all the outrage directed at him is because he didn’t allow the USA to benefit from a mis-call that went their way. If the situations were reversed, for example, if he had mis-called a foul on a Slovenian dive that resulted in a Slovenian go-ahead free kick, the same people calling for his Malian head on a pike would still be angry (though probably not as angry). But he would not be packing his bags if he had mis-called in favor of the United States. We have seen shitty calls in every single game so far, and yet I defy you to give me the name of another ref from this cup whose career has been so instantly placed in jeopardy for it.

I’ll give you a minute.

In any case, the larger point is simply this: it’s one thing to get angry at the ref, but it’s quite another to demand justice. You should do the former; it’s what’s expected of you, the way a defense lawyer should always interpret the case for their client in the best possible light and a prosecuting attorney should always do the reverse. But you should also respect the referee, because if you don’t, it’s not a game anymore. If you don’t let the referee have the final word, you’ve just destroyed his ability to control play, you’ve given every referee a reason to think of his own career before calling a play against a bunch of morons who only care about winning. The game only works if mis-calls are accepted, and you move on from them. Sean Ingle gets that because he’s a professional soccer writer; Jeff Z. Klein doesn’t, because the Times doesn’t employ a full time soccer writer. The rest of the year Klein covers hockey and the kind of football where play barely starts before it stops again.

This is why, in short, what I objected to in the Posnanski column really wasn’t the underlying sentiment of having been robbed of the victory. As numerous Posnanski defenders have pointed out, he’s got a grievance and it’s the sort of grievance that sports fans of every country would loudly protest. But the more fundamental rule is that if you got away with it, it stands. Slovenia got away with it, just like Dempsey got away with elbowing Ljubijankic in the head in the opening minutes of the game; you can’t demand the former call get taken back unless you’re going to call for the second. And you can’t demand that Coulibaly’s miscall on the US’s free kick be taken back unless you also demand justice for the mis-call that made the free kick happen.

Instead of acknowledging the fact that the World Cup’s primary purpose isn’t to make a bunch of American non-soccer-fans happy and that every single team leaves the competition feeling that the refs were against them, Posnanski produces a bizarre rhapsody to American ignorance, the sense that a person who doesn’t care about baseball watching Nolan Ryan pitch is the appropriate frame of reference for thinking about the American tie with Slovenia: the tragedy, for Posnanski, is far less that we were robbed of victory (which is a legitimate grievance) than the fact that the casual American viewer was robbed of a reason to care about soccer (which is not). And you can only be robbed of something if it was your right to have it, and you don’t have a right to win if the ref says you lost, even if he’s wrong.

In soccer, if you got away with it, it was legal. Slovenia got away with it. They drew. If the American team wants to do better, they need to be thinking about Algeria.