JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - When Major League Baseball umpire Jim Joyce stole a perfect game from the Detroit Tigers a few weeks ago, he did the honorable thing. He fessed up. Admitted he had erred. And we forgave.
Koman Coulibaly, and FIFA, should take note because what they did to the U.S. World Cup team Friday night at Ellis Park is unforgivable. They robbed the Americans of a win, plain and simple. And then they scurried away without uttering a word of explanation, leaving T.V. viewers across the globe scratching their heads, fans across America outraged, and the players and coaches in the U.S. camp feeling "gutted" as captain Landon Donovan put it.
Yes, the U.S. played poorly in the first half. Yes, there were other bad calls (Clint Dempsey should have been yellow carded for an elbow to Zlatan Ljubijankic's head). Yes, they were fortunate to come away with a tie and a very real chance of advancing.
But they staged the gutsiest comeback in their World Cup history, and should have reaped the full reward. They scored three goals in the second half of that game against a worthy opponent (Mighty England, by contrast, with its star-studded roster, has scored only one goal through two games).
But only two of the U.S. goals counted because . . . .well, we don't really know why. We may never know why. And that's one of the things very wrong with soccer.
The Malian referee Coulibaly- who was born on July 4, of all days - called a phantom foul on the U.S. as Maurice Edu blasted in what appeared to be the game-winning shot against Slovenia with five minutes to go. The goal was particularly meaningful because the U.S. trailed 2-0 at halftime and, let's be honest, everyone outside their locker room thought they were done.
Had the goal counted, the Americans would have won 3-2 and been leading the group heading into their final first round game against Algeria on Wednesday. Instead, they were forced to settle for a tie and remain in danger of being eliminated.
The official FIFA play-by-play says a foul was called on Edu, but replays show Edu never tangled with anyone, and was not off-side. What the footage does show are a trio of Slovenian players bear-hugging Americans Carlos Bocanegra, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. The U.S. players were pushing and tugging, too, mostly trying to break free. But there was nothing on the replays, absolutely nothing, that warranted disallowing that goal.
When the U.S. players surrounded Coulibaly (nicknamed "Sleepy Eyes" for his droopy eyes) to demand an explanation, he ignored them. These players have spent a lifetime dreaming of playing in this tournament, the biggest sporting event in the world, and presumably, the most professionally-run. They are sacrificing their bodies out there, representing their countries. They deserve to be told who committed the foul and why they have only two points this morning instead of four.
This would never happen in American professional sports. There is no way an NFL referee would nullify a touchdown in the NFC Championship game and not explain himself. He would stand in front of the crowd and announce his call into a microphone, and then, if questions remained, he'd explain it to a pool reporter, who would share it with the rest of the media.
We have transparency. There is no such system of accountability with FIFA referees.
Some purists shrug it off as "the culture of soccer." It's less organized, more free-flowing, the anti-NFL. Sometimes they get calls right. Sometimes they don't. Referees are allowed to add basically arbitrary amounts of minutes onto the end of the game for "injury time." Sometimes it seems longer than it should. Sometimes shorter. Live with it.
Those same purists get outraged when anybody brings up the idea of instant replay for questionable goals. That's not "the culture of soccer." Well, guess what? The culture of soccer could use some updating. Sponsorship fees and TV rights fees are higher than ever. Players' salaries have skyrocketed. There is more at stake in these matches than ever before.
What would be wrong with adding some professionalism, accountability, and fairness to the officiating?
The U.S. players and Coach Bob Bradley were livid with the call, but resigned to the reality that they can't do anything about it.
"I've watched soccer for 25 years, and I've seen plenty of bad calls," said U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber. "You can't let them sink in. You have to let it go."
"It is what it is," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. "Nothing we can do."
"That's the game we love," defender Jay DeMerit said.
A Scottish reporter watched the U.S. reporters' probing questions with amusement. "I think it's great how you guys are demanding answers, trying to get to the bottom of it," he said. "There's not enough of that."
It's never too late to start.