Coulibaly and the Humble Epistemology of Played Soccer

by zunguzungu

What’s at stake in the Koman Coulibaly affair is the World Cup. The US team had a bad break; that free kick should never have been called in the first place (something most commentators have conveniently overlooked), but once it was called, Americans can be forgiven for being upset about the goal being disallowed. It’s not, on its own, a particularly defensible call.

But the big mundial-sized picture is vastly more important. And being upset is one thing; trying to retroactively make it right is another. Getting angry at an individual referee and venting steam at him because your team lost is normal; getting a ref canned for the misfortune of making a bad call against the US degrades the game as a whole. Which is where so many American commentators are demonstrating both their own ignorance of the game and a particular kind of arrogance when they elevate one of the most banal events in soccer — meaningful only because it happened to them — to the level of tragedy.

First, the ignorance. As Ed Felton explains, at length,international soccer has only a single referee on the field (virtually ensuring quite a few missed calls) for a reason:

With the World Cup comes the quadrennial ritual in which Americans try to redesign and improve the rules of soccer. As usual, it’s a bad idea to redesign something you don’t understand—and indeed, most of the proposed changes would be harmful. What has surprised me, though, is how rarely anyone explains the rationale behind soccer’s rules. Once you understand the rationale, the rules will make a lot more sense.

So here’s the logic underlying soccer’s rules: the game is supposed to scale down, so that an ordinary youth or recreation-league game can be played under the exact same rules used by the pros. This means that the rules must be designed so that the game can be run by a single referee, without any special equipment such as a scoreboard.

Most of the popular American team sports don’t scale down in this way. American football, basketball, and hockey — the most common inspirations for “reformed” soccer rules — all require multiple referees and special equipment. To scale these sports down, you have to change the rules. For example, playground basketball has no shot clock, no counting of fouls, and nonstandard rules for awarding free throws and handling restarts—it’s fun but it’s not the same game the Lakers play. Baseball is the one popular American spectator sport that does scale down…It’s no accident, I think, that scalable sports such as soccer and baseball/softball are played by many Americans who typically watch non-scalable sports.

Though I thoroughly endorse his underlying argument — don’t try to re-design something you don’t understand — I also want to pick up from that last point: while the US is a nation of sports viewers, the world plays soccer. It’s the biggest and most visible sporting event in the world, but they made a single man the on-field despot of on-field play because that‘s how the game is played.

Think about that. If you watched that game, after all, Coulibaly’s decision was incomprehensible to you. You didn’t see the foul — he didn’t tell anyone what the foul was — and it sure seemed like the Americans were more fouled against than fouling. You had the benefit of all sorts of multiple angle cameras, replays, and moments and days of reflection to second-guess a call he made, almost instantly, with the benefit of none of this. But it’s interested that sports viewers who can see so much, have also turned out to be able to see so little of one particular perspective, his.

After all, as Mike Lopresti puts it, for the referee, “[t]he World Cup can be a particular nightmare. Half the planet is looking over his shoulder this month, and if he fouls up he gets ridiculed in about 50 languages and 24 time zones…as lonely as a buoy in the middle of the Atlantic…he’s out there alone, trying to police a landscape the size of a ZIP code. Around him are 20 running, kicking, clawing, scratching, grabbing, clutching and occasionally flopping bodies. Plus two goalkeepers.”

Do you seriously think you could do better? Do you seriously think anyone could do better? Which is why when the indignation of most sports commentators isn’t uninformed — most don’t even realize that there’s only one on-field referee, I’d wager, much less why — it strikes me as cheap and lazily arrogant. When Joe Posnanski lamented “what an overmatched referee named Koman Coulibaly cost us all,” I bet he didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that every soccer referee is always overmatched, that putting one set of eyes on the ground, asking that man to run about twelve miles a game (more than the players), and then demanding that that person make instant calls about action going on in every direction around him and that they be right 900 out of 900 times is ridiculous. Impossible. Way past the capacity of our mortal, fallen, human frames.

Now, I don’t think that Posnanski used the word “overmatched” because, like Peter King, he saw a bad call made by a Malian ref and said “wow, that ref sucks and was only appointed to his position because of affirmative action.” There’s no reason to think that of him, so let’s assume he didn‘t mean that and understands that all refs are always overmatched, that he wasn‘t, therefore, calling him inexperienced or incompetent in particular, just complaining that the game, as presently construed, is sometimes mysterious and unfair. That seems like the most likely explanation. What I object to, then, is his demand that what we see, as spectators, be the final and bottom line, both that the referee in the moment be held to the perfection of multiple-camera videotaped accuracy and that the game be fundamentally construed by reference to the casual American sports fans who doesn’t understand soccer because they don‘t play it.

His complaint, after all, was that “this was a lousy introduction to the fog,” and though he might be right, my formative sports experience was the Philadelphia Phillies losing the World Series after a magical and unlikely season, and yet I’m still a baseball fan. Now, obviously, these aren’t the same things; Joe Carter’s home run was a magical moment for a great many Blue Jays fans, I’m sure, and he deserved it. It was gutsy and dramatic. But the difference between sports fans and fair-weather fans is that when the weather turns foul, the real fans stay around. And officiating is like the weather, good and bad. If you’re into soccer, you’ll keep watching because you’re into soccer. If you’re not, a dramatic US victory might interest you briefly, but what do you do next time things don’t go the US’s way? Do you drift off because not every American soccer game is going to have the qualities that Posnanski attributed to this one? They don’t, you know. The Americans are incredibly talented, but the team that got kicked around by a country smaller than Brooklyn will never beat the big teams consistently enough to go very far.[1]

But more than that, would it be a tragedy if I weren’t still a baseball fan? What would be so terrible about me deciding that I didn’t like baseball because it wasn’t fair? Which is why the arrogance of thinking that American viewers are the point-zero of World Cup still bugs me. What would make us think it a bad thing that American viewers are not into soccer? What would make American interest in soccer seem like such an important thing that we would think to re-shape the game to make it more likely?

My guess it that a commenter named Eric summed up what most of the other dissenters to my original post were feeling, and because he did it more eloquently and at greater length than most, I’m going to respond to him in particular (having been overwhelmed by an improbable number of visitors). Eric wrote:

What’s more amazing is that you miss the entire point of Posnanski’s piece. He is a soccer fan — perhaps not as much as you or I, but certainly a fan — and he wants to evangelize soccer in our country. In the U.S.’s stirring comeback (unless you would object to me calling it “stirring” because Portugal had a more impressive revival 40 years ago), he saw the opportunity to show a lot of your stupid Americans how great soccer is. And he’s right — in my office, there was a crowd in the breakroom for the last half hour. In my girlfriend’s office, where a TV is right above her desk, she was unable to do work because she was surrounded by everyone in the office. And yet, in the end, all anyone talked about was the terrible call. A lot of those people who gathered in the breakroom ended up saying “God, soccer is dumb.”

And when Posnanski writes “And I was thinking just what an overmatched referee named Koman Coulibaly cost us all,” that’s what he’s talking about. Not the fact that the Yanks tied one stupid World Cup game. That’s what he’s referring to with the Nolan Ryan anecdote — like the girl who saw one great baseball game and became a fan for life, maybe some of those Americans who witnessed an incredible comeback would have started following soccer.

What strikes me most about all this is the language of proselytizing religion: Posnanski called the goal “miraculous,” because, as Eric put it, he “wants to evangelize soccer in our country.” But if we want to talk religion, let’s talk about faith, the difference between a doubting Thomas that needs to put his fingers in Christ’s wounds to believe and the worshiper who patiently waits in darkness for something that may never come. If American fans want to watch and play soccer, it’s there for them; we’ve reached the tipping point where there are enough fans in this country to make it something you can follow if you want. But unlike an evangelist, who lies awake at night worrying about people who have not yet heard The Good Word, I frankly don’t give a damn about the American pagan babies wallowing in ignorance of the game’s charm. Nor am I inclined to change it to suit them, as Posnanski and company seem to demand. If they don’t like the game as it’s construed, for reasons they don‘t understand, then they don’t like the game; bad calls are part of it, and since they had to learn that sooner or later, now is the time. If you need a miracle going your way to like soccer, you’re not a soccer fan.

In this sense, while I actually suspect that the Coulibaly call will do a great deal to pique the interest of American fans — since Americans love feeling oppressed by the world — I see a particular danger in proselytizing as well: if we want to continue thinking of soccer as a religion, then I’m a Hindu, perfectly content to know the truth and share it with anyone who asks but leery of dumbing it down for those that haven’t yet come around. Paul and company transformed Christianity when they made it into a thing you could and should be converted to, when they started worrying more and more about how to get the Galatians, Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and the Thessalonians to accept Christ, and less and less about what Christ actually said. Evangelism can be dangerous; if you water down the good news either to appeal to the heathens or suck up to the Empire, you might lose something vital. And in this case, I think, that something vital is the thing that keeps the Empire from liking the sport; the thing you understand by playing should not be sacrificed just so a nation of couch potatoes will suddenly like the game

John Turnbull, over at The Global Game, has a nice anecdote from Paul Richards, a University of London anthropologist, who

“in a field study from Sierra Leone writes about the day he was asked to referee a village match. He begs off. His replacement is quickly embroiled in an offside controversy that threatens the entire game. The referee, accused of bias and incompetence, starts to leave. After long consultation, participants agree that “a game played at speed and with passion cannot be regulated without a referee. Better to abide by the referee’s rulings than for the game to be abandoned. Somebody mutters the proverb ‘bad osban beta pas empti os’ (a bad husband is better than an empty house). Order returns and the game is played out in a friendly spirit, resulting in a 1–1 draw.”

The referee’s example—the precarious, impossible position of the fair arbiter—is more essential than one might think. Nine-year-old boys in an African jungle know that.

I don’t want to change the sport. I like the game the way it is; I like the fact that when you’re playing soccer — do you play soccer or do you just watch it? — you don’t have the option of rewinding and re-watching. A thing happens and then it’s over forever; and so, if the ref says it was a foul it was. A single referee has no chance of catching, processing, and correctly arbitrating over every single event in the game — even with help from the sideline — but the same is true when you’re a player: you see some version of the event, some instant half-understood two-dimensional snapshot of a flowing and complex four-dimensional reality and you process it by filtering it through your own consciousness; it seemed like it was a foul, but you become sure it was a foul because your team needs it to be a foul.

Which is why those soccer playing kids understood something that a nation of television watchers is good at forgetting. The Referee is more important than any one referee, and when Koman Coulibaly is held to the standard of a world armed with re-windable recordings of the game from every possible angle, The Referee loses his prestige. If his calls are subject to the higher authority of the viewer, something very fundamental about the game has changed: rather than waiting for the weather and playing in it, you stand aside and demand that it be different.

[1] In fact, one of the reasons Posnanski‘s re-telling of the game sucked is that the US was a lot more like Goliath than David, and when Goliath makes a second half comeback against a David who‘s utterly dominated him up until that point, the word “transcendent” doesn’t apply. Do it against even a team like England and we‘ll talk