SAO PAULO – The Brazilians were thankful. The front page of Monday’s O Globo featured a large photo of Croatian defender Dejan Lovren’s “foul” on Fred during Thursday’s World Cup opener and proclaimed, “Arigatô!” in reference to generous Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura.
The Croatians were furious.
“I think if this continues then no one should play against Brazil. We should just give them the World Cup and everyone can go home,” defender Vedran Corluka told reporters after Croatia’s 3-1 loss.
And the Americans, who were monitoring affairs from their hotel here in Sao Paulo, were watchful. Nishimura’s decision, which led to Neymar’s game-winning penalty kick, confirmed a message the U.S. players had heard a couple days before: referees are watching for contact in the penalty area. While Fred’s flop was disgraceful and Croatia's predicament undeserved, Lovren put his fate in the official’s hands by putting his own on the attacker.
“As a defender … that was a tough one to see. But I think it’s a good one to see,” Matt Besler said Friday. “It’s a lesson that maybe some of us learned just by watching. It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we’ve got to be careful.”
Shortly after the U.S. arrived in Brazil, they were visited by Esse Baharmast, a former U.S. referee and U.S. Soccer Federation officiating director who now works as a FIFA instructor. He talked with the team about the rules and protocol and what World Cup officials will be looking for. Baharmast, who worked at the 1998 World Cup, also took questions from players.
“They already say that we have to watch with the hands in the box or on corner kicks,” Jermaine Jones said, adding with a laugh, “Especially me with the yellow cards! “
The midfielder continued, “We know the rules and we have to be careful. I think we have to, but we have to play our game.”
The U.S. is no stranger to World Cup controversy. Maurice Edu’s goal against Slovenia four years ago was inexplicably ruled out by Malian ref Koman Coulibaly. In 2006, two players were ejected against Italy. Later, a soft penalty kick foul called on Oguchi Onyewu resulted in elimination at the hands of Ghana. In 2002, Germany’s Torsten Frings used his hand to block Gregg Berhalter’s goal-bound bid in the Americans’ quarterfinal loss (perhaps canceling out John O'Brien's hand ball against Mexico).
Goalkeeper Tim Howard said the onus falls on the referee.
“It sucks for Croatia, that’s what I think. But that’s a part of the game. Referees have got to get those things right, It’s obviously a big moment and it’s not easy being a referee, but hopefully going forward those are taken care of,” he said. “I’ve got no problem with the Brazilian player going down. I would encourage my own players, if they feel contact, to go down. It’s a referee’s job, obligation and responsibility to make sure that he gets it right.”
But U.S. players can help themselves by remembering the lesson from Thursday. Give the referee an excuse to make a mistake, and he just might.
"We can learn so we know that we don’t have to touch some people in the box and watch out with all that,” Jones said.
GALLERY: Meet the USA's 23-man World Cup team