JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Hope you're enjoying that monster suite in the Michelangelo Hotel, Sepp Blatter, and the luxurious massages and, I assume, the caviar and nightly champagne. Your sport's burning.
I may not be as outraged about the outcome of Friday's crucial World Cup game between America and Slovenia were I not American. But whether you're from Mars or Marietta or, in the incompetent match referee's country, Mali, you should be outraged. Because it wasn't just the United States that got robbed here Friday, it was also the slogan FIFA shoves down the world's throats every year.
There's so much unfair about the outcome 2-2 draw between the United States and Slovenia in a game that should be in the books today as a 3-2 win for the U.S. -- that it's hard to know where to start.
With the score tied at 2 in the 86th minute, the United States had a direct kick on the Slovenian side of the field. There was much pushing and shoving in front of the goal, both before the ball was in the air and while it flew toward the net. Replays showed three American players being bearhugged by Slovenians -- and Americans, in the case of at least two scrums, hugging back. But in the case of an earlier hero, midfielder Michael Bradley, Slovenian Aleksander Radosavljevic did his best Ray Lewis imitation, practically dragging Bradley down just feet from the goal. As the ball fell to earth, American sub Maurice Edu pounced on it, flicking it hard into the net for what appeared to be the winning goal. But in his first World Cup game, referee Koman Coulibaly, from the landlocked West African country of Mali, ran into the fray and blew off the goal.
At least four Americans tried to find out what the call was. But Coulibaly, who, according to several U.S. players was all but mute during the game (a rarity in world-class games, they say), didn't inform either side what call he made. We still do not know what the infraction was that Coulibaly called, and under the idiotic rules of FIFA, Coulibaly doesn't have to say what the infraction was. He might go to his grave with it.
"Who knows what it was?'' said the man of the match, Landon Donovan of the United States. "I am not sure how much English he spoke, or if he spoke English. But we asked him several times in a non-confrontational way. He just ignored us.''
The call was awful. But in all sports, when hugely controversial calls are made -- the Tuck Rule call by Walt Coleman in the Raiders-Patriots playoff game nine years ago, the Jim Joyce ruination-of-the-perfect-game this month -- at least we know what the call is. Here, millions of people staring at TVs around the world are still asking, "What's the call?''
You could feel it in the bowels of Ellis Park after the game. Don't make a big stir over this. It's soccer. Nothing you can do it about it. It's just the way it is.
Why? Why is this just blindly accepted? FIFA uses a referee -- in a game of vital importance in determining who moves on in the biggest tournament in any sport in the world -- whose highest previous assignment was the African Cup. That's got to be the equivalent of a Mid-American Conference ref being assigned the Super Bowl.
Coaches coach for four years to get to the World Cup. Players train for four years to get to the World Cup. And they have their fate decided by some wordless man handed an assignment he had no business having. But as important: Just what is this governing body FIFA, with the world watching its signature event, doing when it doesn't mandate an explanation from the referee about what he called that determined the outcome of a game?
I blame Coulibaly. But FIFA deserves equal blame, for putting a system in place that allows incompetent officiating to skate free. So what if we never see this official again? The damage is done. He was in far over his head, and he blew the call that decided the game. He can disappear now, and in all nations but America, the story will blow over. Nice racket you've got going, FIFA.
My fervent hope is America won't let FIFA forget about this -- that you, the readers and followers of this sport and the viewers of this sacred game -- will rise up and pound FIFA with protests. Write to FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Demand accountability. You've invested your time and energy, and you've cheated your boss today by sneaking over to the lounge where you work to watch this very important event in your life, and you've come away feeling angry and empty. Which you should.
So don't just sit there. Do something. Write to Blatter. Tell him you want accountability. Here's the address:
Sepp BlatterFIFABox 858030 Zurich, Switzerland
I would have told you to write an email to FIFA, but I've been on their website for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to email the organization. This is best I found.
The least FIFA should do is demand its officials make public their calls. Secondly, FIFA should be forced to make the referee of each match available to a pool reporter to explain any controversial calls.
The world is watching. But moments like this threaten the world watching in the future, at least in countries whose citizens have a brain.
• It can't be. But yes, it is. Coulibaly was born on the Fourth of July.
• Outrage flowed from the Americans, but guess what? Not the Slovenians. In the postgame press conference, I asked the coach of Slovenia, Matjaz Kek, how he felt about the call that erased the American goal.
Now, understand this about covering the World Cup. The official language of Slovenia is Slovene. I don't speak that. (By the way, the population of Slovenia is 2 million -- about half that of Connecticut.) When you go into a post-match press conference, you can put on headsets that will allow you to hear the translated answers of the coach into your language. So that's what I did. I asked the question in English, it was translated to Kek, and he answered, and it was translated by a young fellow who sounded like he was eating lunch when he regurgitated the answer -- in halting, struggling English.
"I will not pass any judgment on refereeing,'' Kek said. (Maybe.) "I believe the referee hasn't had an impact on the final result.''
So I asked Bob Bradley in the American press conference: "Isn't something like this a bit of an outrage in a game of this importance?''
I could see Bradley thinking about how to answer this question. When he did, he said, "In the midst of a game, it's rare that a referee will give you an answer. When you're involved in the game long enough, there are moments when you're frustrated ... That's the way the game works. And you move on.''
After the game, on the field, Donovan told ESPN he doesn't know how the official stole the last goal from his team. By the time he cooled down, he'd cooled down -- and said nothing of the sort to the reporters in the mixed zone, where interviews with the world press are done after the game.
I did get forward Jozy Altidore to say: "Four years of your life you put into this game, and this happens. I am baffled. We all are. We were all just in the locker room, asking, 'What's the call?' I thought it was a clean goal.''
"We waited our whole lives for this, and you feel like it was taken from you,'' said goalkeeper Tim Howard.
But there was a general sense of resignation among the U.S. players. Sad, really. Like, There's nothing we can do about this incompetence, and we better zip our lips or we might pay with vengeful officiating in future games.
"It's the sport we live with,'' said Jay DeMerit.
That's the kind of thinking that needs to change.
• Make no mistake: The Great Mandela's watching. With the tragic death of his great-granddaughter at the hands of a drunk driver the night before the World Cup began, 91-year-old Nelson Mandela, who is by far the man most responsible for the tournament coming to Africa for the first time, has been totally out of public view. His grandson, Mandla Mandela, was at an event Thursday next to the U.S. friends and families hotel trying to sell prints to benefit a new high school for the Mvezo tribal area where Nelson Mandela was born. (Go to AfricaSalutesYou.com to see some of this neat art, and purchase if you wish.)
I asked the younger Mandela, who is the local chief of the Mvezo region, if his grandfather was following the soccer action.
"Oh, yes,'' he said with a smile. "But he is old now, and he needs his rest. He might watch the first few minutes of a game, and he gets a little bit excited, then he goes for a rest, and later, he will say to us, 'Who won the game? What happened?' He can't afford to get too excited these days, but he loves this World Cup. It was his dream for South Africa, and for Africa. It has been on my grandfather's agenda to use sport for nation-building, and I think he feels strongly that this is happening here right now.''
Mandla Mandela speaks in the same measured tones as his grandfather. I asked him what I've heard for nearly two weeks now around the country -- the same kind of anger and resentment toward foreigners that is building in some parts of our country with illegal immigrants. There are 3 million Zimbabweans, for instance, who have come flooding over the northern border into South Africa to find work and escape the oppressive regime in Zimbabwe. They're not alone. That's contributed to a 41 percent unemployment rate. Everywhere you drive, there are men on the side of the road, walking somewhere or standing, hoping that a passing motorist will offer a daily job painting a house or doing some other day work. I asked Mandela if he resented the influx of Africans taking jobs from South Africans.
"During the worst years of Apartheid,'' Mandla Mandela said, "Zimbabwe housed many of our people who were being oppressed. So did other countries in Africa. We ought to be striving to ensure that people be given the same kind of home that we were given when life was difficult for us. All the countries in the southern region [of Africa] played a major role in the fight against Apartheid. The people of Zimbabwe who are here, make no mistake about it -- they want to go home. We hope someday they have the chance to do so.''
My ranking of the top five teams in the 32-team World Cup after eight days of competition:
1. Brazil (1-0-0, 3 points). I laugh when everyone says how poorly the Brazilians played the other night. You can't look great if your opponent's packing it in, which North Korea was doing for 45 minutes.
2. Netherlands (1-0-0, 3 points). Looking more orange than the Tennessee Vols, their fans wear the colors everywhere. Saw six in orange jumpsuits at a lion park Thursday.
3. Argentina (2-0-0, 6 points).Leo Messi: 14 shots, zero goals in two games. But the Argentines have scored five goals with Messi helping set them up.
4. Uruguay (1-0-1, 4 points). Played wall-like D to tie France, then broke out to play colorful offense in obliterating South Africa.
5. Chile (1-0-0, 3 points). Edged Germany after getting its first World Cup win since 1962, 1-0 over Honduras. Other than Germany's rout of Australia, the Chile win might have been the most dominant performance of the first 16 games.
"I'm a little gutted to be honest. I don't know how they stole that last goal from us. ... I'm not sure what the call was. He (the referee) wouldn't tell us what the call was.'' --Landon Donovan, on the unexplained infraction called by ref Koman Coulibaly in the 2-2 draw with Slovenia
"At the end, I decided to aim high, and aim at his head. I don't think he wanted to get hit in the head.''--Donovan, on his first goal, which he blasted at the head of the Slovenia goalkeeper from close range early in the second half
"I hope we don't see his face again in any game anymore.''-- South Africa coach Carlos Parreira, on referee Massimo Busacca, who gave South African goalkeeper, Itumeleng Khune a red card late in the 3-0 loss to Uruguay.
Busacca's got quite a storied history. Reffing a game in Qatar last year, he relieved himself on the field because he said he couldn't hold it.
Couldn't you just see Ed Hochuli trying to explain that one to Roger Goodell?
According to Agence France-Presse, a hooligan Greek Orthodox Church man of the cloth, Priest Christos, was demoted and ordered to refrain from further "uncouth gatherings of supporters'' after video captured him in full robes of the church in the middle of a throng of team supporters yelling at an opposition team during a Greek professional game. His fellow fans were heard to be chanting, "The priest is a god!''
Before I left for this trip, an infectious-disease doctor in Boston told me not to eat salads or drink tap water in South Africa, and be cautious about all meats, and make sure if I ate meat, it was well-cooked. I got shots and/or medication for typhoid, hepatitis and tetanus. When I told the infectious-disease doctor I would not be doing anything particularly outdoorsy, like hanging around with lions or giraffes, he let me go without malaria or yellow fever shots. These are some of the things I've done here:
a. Eaten raw springbok, tender meat from the brown and white gazelle that is so famous in southern Africa. At an African restaurant, I saw some on the buffet line, and I mean, how often are you in South Africa with what the waiter raved about being the national meat of the country? I had to try it, and it was terrific. Sort of like tuna tartare.
b. Fed a giraffe.
c. Let a lion cub take my fist in his mouth, rub it with his sandpapery tongue and try to bite it with dull new teeth. A couple of cubs, actually. This happened Thursday at Lion Park northwest of Johannesburg, where you drive through a large nature preserve and you can see all sorts of native animals in their natural habitat. The cubs (see photo) were quite playful. At one point, one of them locked its teeth around my watch and tried to bite it free of the strap. The dried cub slobber is still on the bottom of the silver face.
d. Eaten a lot of salad. Sorry, doc. The lettuce looks so good, and the grape tomatoes are twice the size of the ones I usually see.
e. As for the bottled water, I've been pretty good 90 percent of the time drinking only that. But three or four times I've had lemon water from pitchers in restaurants. No problem.
So no, I have not been a very good patient.
"That sound is the sound of TVs all across the USA switching channels... except in Cleveland.''-- @KGertsen, Kevin Gertsen, late in the first half of the USA-Slovenia game, after Slovenia went up 2-0. Cleveland has a large Slovenian population, and there is a Slovenia consulate in downtown Cleveland.
The sound of TVs all over the USA clicking back -- I assume -- could be heard about a half-hour later.
"What is the drink of choice with no coffee?''-- @Glennr1809, Glenn Robbins, asking something that a few of you have asked in various forms, so here's my answer about drinking in South Africa, coffee and otherwise.
The coffee is not good as a whole. I've had lattes in nine places in nearly two weeks, and the only one worth a darn is a double latte from Mugg & Bean, a trendy coffee chain throughout the country. It's got dark and strong espresso, and the milk is fine. I'd call it midway between the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks lattes, but when you've had some of the swill I've tried around the country, believe me, the Mugg & Bean latte is terrific.
Re beer: Most of the South African beer is very Bud- and Miller-ish. Grant Wahl did get me to try a Mozambique beer Thursday night at a cookout at the home he and some of the SI staffers are renting for the World Cup. Pretty good pale lager -- with a strong flavor and some bite. I've stuck to Peroni on tap -- it's brewed here under license from Peroni in Italy, and served very cold -- and a couple of mostly bland locals, Castle and Hansa. No great beef about the beer. I love Peroni, and when I saw it was brewed in South Africa, I didn't feel so bad about it being my beer of choice.
We've also enjoyed some good wine here. Golfer Ernie Els has some reasonably priced (Big Easy red, $18) quality wines that we've looked for and liked. Dr. Z would be proud, sort of.
1. I think, well, I know the U.S. controls its own destiny heading into Wednesday's 10 a.m. EDT match against Algeria, which tied England 0-0 on Friday night. A win, and the U.S. is in, no matter what happens in the England-Slovenia match. In case tiebreakers are needed, however, here's how it works:
a. Goal difference in all three group games.b. Most goals, total, in three group games.c. Number of points in matches between the tied teams.d. Goal difference in matches between tied teams.e. Most goals scored in matches between tied teams.f. Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee.
2. I think you must think I'm kidding about that last tiebreaker. But you can look it up. True fact.
3. I think if you're like me, you must be wondering why Tim Howard gave up such a soft goal to start the game. Turns out, as he said, he never saw it. "Lost sight of it,'' he said afterward, and I buy it. There had to be some reason why he froze on a ball he would have a chance to deflect over the goal.
4. I think Michael Bradley is a little powder keg personally, but you can't take away from him the biggest goal in recent U.S. soccer history. What a beautiful one-toucher by Bradley to tie the game at 2.
5. I think these are my non-soccer thoughts of the week:
a. I Tweeted this the other day, when Albert Haynesworth decided to skip the Redskins' mandatory minicamp, but for those who missed it, here's my take on a man who has been paid $32 million in bonus and salary over the past 16 months and is boycotting the team because he's not happy with the shift from a 4-3 to 3-4: He's an idiot.
b. Congrats, Lakers. I hear that was one inspired performance to win the NBA title. I can't help but feel some sorrow for the Celtics, who now will have to be torn down a bit.
c. When I left America two weeks ago, the Red Sox were struggling and I'd never heard of Daniel Nava or Felix Doubront. Nava and Doubront were in the starting lineup for the Sox -- two game out of first now -- as they met the Dodgers on Friday evening at Fenway.
d. And no, if I was there, I wouldn't be cheering for Manny Ramirez, who quit on the team more than once.
e. Pretty strange to come halfway across the world to be in the best health club you've ever seen, but that's the case with the Virgin Health Club in our neighborhood here.