Truth, Justice, the American Way, and Soccer Referees:

The refs are working hard to screw the World Cup up, proving the wisdom of the old adage: "players win games, coaches lose games, and refs ruin games." The patently absurd penalty called against the US in its game against Ghana was not the worst of it. My two candidates for the worst of it:

  1. In the France-Korea game, Zinedine Zidane -- by common consent the greatest and most elegant player of his generation -- got the stupidest yellow card of them all; he bumped into and knocked down a Korean defender a second or two after the keeper had made a save ... a truly trivial offense, and clearly accidental. But because it was his second yellow card (he got one in the first game), he has to sit out today's match agaoinst Togo. The truly awful part of it is that (a) he announced several months ago (front page news, literally, in Italy, though I'm sure it wasn't even mentioned here in the US) his retirement from soccer after this World Cup, AND (b) France's next match might be their last in the tournament (if they don't win). So it adds up to this: because some jerk of a ref wanted to teach him some stupid lesson, we might never see Zidane play soccer again. It's truly appalling and depresses me no end (not least because now I really HAVE to root for the French to win their next game).

  2. This morning, in Tunisia-Ukraine, the score is tied 0-0; if the Tunisians win, they go through to the second round. Tunisia has a free kick, and one of the Ukrainian defenders sticks his arm up in the air and deflects the ball. As clear a penalty as you could ask for, but the ref does nothing. Five minutes later, the Ukrainian striker Andrey Schevchenko has the ball in front of the keeper, and trips over his own feet (probably intentionally, to draw a penalty) -- and he gets the call! 1-0 Ukraine -- a two-goal swing.

Here's what interesting, though. I think that this is, paradoxically (and possibly perversely), part of what people who are obsessed with soccer (all 1.5 billion or so of us)find compelling about the game. It has, like life, an irreducible element of capriciousness and luck. American football deals with this by sending out about 15 referees and, since that does not seem to be enough to guarantee that calls are made correctly, using instant replay in addition. It is equally absurd, though in a different, and I think peculiarly American, sort of way. Tunisia got screwed; it is too bad. But that,sometimes, is the way it goes . . .