Globally, soccer all too often imitates life

More Americans have tuned into the 2010 World Cup than ever before, but they are witnessing what appears to be terrible officiating in many games by the best referees in the world. The U.S. team, of course, was the victim of a poor call when a potential game-winning goal against Slovenia was disallowed without explanation. Yet another game may have been distorted Tuesday when a Dutch player barely offsides arguably interfered with the goalkeeper on a goal. The Dutch advanced to Sunday’s finals in a 3-2 win over Uruguay.

Controversial officiating has long been the bane of world soccer, but most Americans aren’t accustomed to it and are baffled that simple technologies, such as video replay, aren’t deployed in games where so much is at stake.

The unwillingness of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to acknowledge the game’s shortcomings affronts American ideals of fair play, adhering to clear rules and the importance of getting it right.

And yet soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is a product of the countries that play it. National pride rides on every game. The temptation to cheat or bend the rules is overpowering. Referees can and do lose control of matches, ceding the pitch to cheap fouls and poor sportsmanship. To be fair, many Americans do not yet appreciate how many calls are subject to the referee’s interpretation of the rules.

The U.S. has a sports culture that is used to referee mistakes; the National Basketball Association reportedly admits to a 15 percent error rate. What is intolerable for most Americans is a culture of cheating, which is very difficult to do in American football, baseball and basketball where judgment calls are more instantaneous.

The baseball umpire’s gaffe that cost a Detroit Tiger pitcher his perfect game last month, as dispiriting as it was, has not undermined America’s continuing love for the national pastime, because it was so rare. Perhaps, baseball’s management also feels tradition is more important than accuracy. Baseball players do not have as many chances to cheat as in soccer.

Soccer is a game where the psychology of team play often overshadows technique, which also increases the importance of the refereeing. Clearly some fans feel the game is or has become less about skill than gaming the referees who lack the video replay technology of most other U.S. sports.

More than in most team sports, soccer referee teams of four officials must also manage the game, which means trying to apply consistent standards to ambiguous and flexible rules — except when that no longer works in a game that threatens to become unmanageable.

In the quarterfinals, for example, the Netherlands, who trailed 1-0, started diving and fouling aggressively in the second half against Brazil. The referee attempted to dissuade diving and violence by issuing a yellow card against a Dutch player. But Dutch player Arjen Robben ignored the referee warnings and got away with too many dives.

Brazilian midfielder Filipe Melo, having already committed an own-goal, lost his cool and deliberately “cleaned his cleats” on Robben’s thigh. Did the lack of enforcement provoked Filipe Melo to the brink? Not calling fouls can affect a game as much as a blown call, even as there was no excuse for Filipe Melo’s violent assault.

FIFA can slow down the flow of soccer decisions more than it already does, with pauses in the action every time a whistle blows for offside or a foul. It could also give the fourth official on the sidelines a television monitor, like in the NBA and college basketball. FIFA would then have to give referees the right to change decisions already decided.

This would be a major change in the culture of the game. How to overrule decisions without slowing down the game is not a simple matter. Inevitably, the referee will still have to use discretion on when to overrule his own, earlier decision, which would undermine his or her own credibility — and that of the game.

Another option would be to follow the example of tennis or American football by allowing coaches to challenge calls. Many challenges would come at the end of the game, when a team may want to slow down the momentum of the opponents. This would risk tactical challenges rather than genuine challenges to a judgment call by a referee.

Ultimately, Americans want their sports to be different from life, where cheating is not possible and where sportsmanship is rewarded.

Maybe it is no accident that soccer is more popular elsewhere in the world, where fairness in life and politics isn’t a day-to-day reality. What poor kids must know in the developing world is how to get ahead by nearly any means possible. The lower-classes play soccer around the world, not just because it is simple and inexpensive, but also because it reflects the harsh conditions of their lives.

Here in the U.S., affluent kids play soccer, and their parents pay handsomely to get them on teams to earn a chance to get a college scholarship. Yet pro soccer players rarely go to college, and play on lower ranking “minor” league teams in order to get noticed. They won’t get ahead if they do not occasionally game the referees. Soccer is not a release from life. For most of the world, soccer is life.

Henry F. “Chip” Carey teaches political science at Georgia State University and is a former high school soccer coach in Atlanta.

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