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Controversial Call Gives Casual Soccer Fans Reason to Follow Team USA

by Poper Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2010 at 6:27 AM

Sports have a way of uniting a nation. And sometimes, it takes a bad bounce to force that bond to develop in the first place.

Take the case of Armando Galarraga. Before his almost-no-hitter, he was just a pitcher struggling to maintain his spot in the Tigers’ rotation. But after Jim Joyce blew a call at first base with two outs in the ninth inning of Galarraga’s perfect game, he went from nobody to Detroit’s -- and America’s -- 'sweetheart.' Nobody outside of the Motor City (and probably many of those within it) wouldn’t even know his name if Joyce hadn’t stolen perfection from him.

Isn’t that what’s happening with the U.S. soccer team, too?

Now, people who would never classify themselves as soccer fans are suddenly invested in the U.S.' fate in the first round of the World Cup. Why? Because a bad call could stand in between the U.S. and the opportunity to continue competing for the honor of winning a worldwide competition that only happens once every four years.

The U.S. is certainly no favorite to keep competing in South Africa. Nobody expects it to win, just like nobody expected to see America’s hockey team playing against Canada for the gold medal in February.

But that happened. And so could this -- if bad calls don’t get in the way.

On June 19, in the midst of its second game of the World Cup, the U.S. was deadlocked at 1 against Slovenia when Maurice Edu found the back of the net in the 86th minute. This, during a game in which the Americans rallied from a two-goal deficit at halftime -- during a game when the U.S. could have become the first team in 80 years to overcome that margin en route to victory.

Instead, referee Koman Coulibaly blew the whistle just before Edu fired his shot, and the unquestionably- good goal was disallowed. Edu wasn’t offsides. He wasn’t jostling anyone wearing white any more than they were returning the favor. The two teams finished in a draw, and the U.S. lost two points instead of putting itself in prime position to keep playing long after Wednesday.

According to Landon Donovan, Coulibaly would not offer an explanation for why he blew the whistle in the first place. During his postgame news conference, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley still had no idea what the foul call was for.

“I still don’t know why the goal was disallowed,” Bradley told the media. “Nobody knows at this moment.”

New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman has another theory as to why no explanation was offered after the call was made.

"Part of soccer culture is, when you make a call, the two captains and come over and ask you, 'What was the call?' And you're supposed to respond," Twellman said on Monday’s "Toucher and Rich Show" on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I've talked to some of the players via email and stuff, and the funny thing is, on the field, [Coulibaly said], 'I don't speak English.' Well, after the game, FIFA says, 'No, he's bilingual, he speaks English and French.'"

Whatever the reason for Coulibaly’s lack of explanation, there’s still no excuse for it -- and now, it could cost the U.S. its chance to advance in the competition. The referees should not be the ones deciding who gets the opportunity to keep playing, and when the referees become a hindrance instead of an equalizing force, there’s a problem.

"I'm honestly still stunned," Twellman said. "I just hope the U.S. gets through so we can stop talking about it. … I'm just tired of it. Let the players play, let the ball decide it and put the whistle away."

In the case of Galarraga, at least Jim Joyce immediately admitted that he was in the wrong. At least he admitted that he blew the call, promptly apologized for something that umpires have no obligation to apologize for, took the blame.

This, though, is not like an umpire missing a close call at first. There’s no room for error in the World Cup, not when it only happens once every four years and you’ve got one shot to go big or go home. How do you explain to Donovan, to Bradley, that there’s no reason a game they won was stolen from them? How do you explain to them that they just have to suck it up and move on?

FIFA has been in the process of reviewing Coulibaly’s performance (a standard practice which all referees are subject to), but it is unlikely he will be disciplined publicly, if at all. According to The Wall Street Journal, even if the committee finds that Coulibaly made a mistake, there won’t be any kind of public shaming. in all likelihood, he just won't be assigned to any future matches.

That's great, but none of that helps the U.S. get its goal back.

There’s no excuse for a referee making a bad call and getting away with it – not when the stakes are this high, even in a country that isn’t -- or wasn’t -- completely invested in the sport.

There aren’t many positives to take from the outcome of last Friday’s game, but undeniably, one of them is the fact that this controversy has lit a fire under a nation that didn’t care before there was something to care about. The bad call -- no matter how bad it was -- has given fans in the U.S. something to unite over, something to feel passionate about. Sure, it would have been nice to get a win over Slovenia (and it’s not as though a win wouldn’t have given American fans those same vibes), but controversy like this always gets sports fans going more than winning. Controversy gives you something besides the opponent triumph over, something else to beat. Because controversy makes the road to victory more difficult, it also renders the eventual win all the more gratifying.

Even the team notices this strange phenomenon -- that people suddenly care.

"Things are starting to leak into our training camp," goalkeeper Tim Howard told the Telegraph (U.K.). "People are up in arms and they can't believe the call. That's pretty cool. … For people, particularly our American fans back home, to be so up in arms about it does show that firstly, they care, and secondly, they are getting hip to the game and starting to understand how it all works."

America has never been gung-ho about soccer, but controversy has a way of making people take notice, think, pay attention. It has a way of making people care.
Unfortunately, though, all those Americans who now suddenly care could be gearing up to watch the U.S.’s last game on Wednesday against Algeria.

And if that happens -- if the U.S. loses -- there will be plenty of fans pointing to this one mistake as the moment the tides turned.

Regardless of the outcome, though, one thing is for sure: Everyone will be watching.

"I think we've all been pretty well informed as to response back home via text, e-mail, phone calls, Facebook etc., Internet," Donovan told The Associated Press on Monday. "In some ways, it's really heartening to see how much people care. And the one thing we do know is that Wednesday night, or Wednesday morning in the States, is going to a be a really big occasion and we relish that because we don't get that very often. We know people are talking about it and people care."

If the U.S. can overcome a devastating blow like this, then the call -- the missed opportunity -- becomes only a bump in the road. It doesn’t define this summer for this team. Hopefully, the fans who do care about the fate of this team get something to continue to root for. Hopefully, the U.S. can rally just like it did on Friday, because that would certainly be the best thing for a nation that just isn’t interested in the sport. It’s exactly the kind of storyline we all love -- rags to riches, overcoming the impossible en route to the greatest victory of all.

But if the U.S. loses -- well, all those fans the team gained in the midst of the controversy won’t be sticking around.

That call could be the moment that crushed the dreams of the U.S. soccer team. But if a few cards fall the right way on Wednesday -- if the U.S. gets a good bounce instead of a devastating one -- it also could be the moment that this country started caring about those dreams in the first place.
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