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What If ... the ref had called a handball against Germany at the 2002 World Cup?

by Grant Wahl

The stage has never been bigger for U.S. men’s soccer than it was on June 21, 2002, in Ulsan, South Korea. The Americans had made an inspiring World Cup run, beating Portugal and Mexico and advancing to the quarterfinals for the first (and still only) time in the modern era, and early in the second half they were largely outplaying mighty Germany, though they trailed 1–0. In the 50th minute, U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna unspooled a near-post corner kick that was flicked into the path of defender Gregg Berhalter.

“As the corner was coming in I said, I’m going to gamble and move away from my opponent toward the center back-post area,” says Berhalter, now coach of the Columbus Crew. “The ball fell right to where I was gambling on, and I had a chance to lunge at it with my left foot. [I made] good contact and it was going into the goal; it beat the goalkeeper [Oliver Kahn], but [German midfielder] Torsten Frings put his hand out and blocked it right on the line.”

Nobody disputes that the ball hit Frings’s left arm, preventing it from entering the goal—but should there have been a penalty called and a red card given? The game’s Scottish referee, Hugh Dallas, ruled there was no infraction. “A foul can only be given if it is deliberate hand-to-ball and not ball-to-hand,” he told the Sunday Mail, adding that he’d had “a totally clear view” of the play, even though video replays show there were five players between him and the incident. (UEFA, which employs Dallas, declined to make him available for this story.)

Howard Webb, the Englishman who refereed the 2010 World Cup and Champions League finals, sees the play differently. When Webb became an international referee in ’05, Dallas (who had retired by then) was his mentor for a year. “This is a famous incident, but I don’t think I ever discussed it with him,” says Webb, who reviewed video replays for this story. “The correct outcome should have been a penalty kick awarded for the use of the hand, and a red card for the denial of a goal—not the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, but the denial of a goal, because clearly the ball would have gone in had Frings not blocked it.”

The laws and interpretations governing such incidents have not changed since 2002, Webb notes. “There’s not a great deal of movement by Frings,” he says. “It’s not like Luis Suárez in ’10 against Ghana, when he threw his arms in the air goalkeeper-style” to block a clear goal, earning a penalty and a red card. “A handball has to be deliberate, but when a team gains such a huge advantage through a handball and there is that element of a slight movement toward the ball—or even not a retraction of the arm away from the flight of the ball—then the referee, generally speaking, will penalize the offender.”

So, what if the penalty and red card had been given? Going back to 1966, players have converted 81% of all World Cup penalty kicks. Kahn was in standout form in 2002, but it’s still likely the U.S. would have tied the score from the spot—Bruce Arena, the team’s coach then and now, says Reyna would have taken the penalty—and continued outplaying Germany with a man advantage for up to 70 minutes, including potential extra time. (Playing 11-on-11, the U.S. ended up outshooting Germany 11–6.)

The Americans’ chances of winning, had those calls been made, were “better than 50-50,” says Arena. “And I think if we were one of the big countries, we would have gotten that call.” Landon Donovan, who was a 20-year-old striker in that tournament, says, “Playing against most teams, you would say 75%, maybe 80% [for the U.S. to win]. But playing against top teams like Germany or Brazil, I would probably have put it at 50-50. They would have been smart enough to defend well, and they would have tried to steal a goal the other way on a set piece—and if not, then it goes to penalties, where they’re really good.”


"I think if we were one of the big countries, we would have gotten that call,” Arena says.


And what if the U.S. had advanced past Germany? Awaiting in the semifinal would have been co-host South Korea, whom the U.S. had already tied 1–1 earlier in the tournament and who they’d beaten 2–1 in the 2002 Gold Cup. That said, Arena would have had only 14 eligible field players due to yellow-card suspensions (Berhalter, Pablo Mastroeni, Eddie Pope) and injuries (Jeff Agoos, Steve Cherundolo, Joe-Max Moore). “Would we have beaten South Korea?” asks Donovan. “I don’t know—but it wouldn’t have surprised anyone.” And in a final against Brazil? “Highly unlikely that we win. But we’ve beaten Brazil before, and there’s no reason that, on that day, we couldn’t get a little lucky.”

It’s often wondered in American soccer circles whether this country will ever win a men’s World Cup. But the fact is, the U.S. wasn’t that far away in 2002.

Webb recently moved to New York City to oversee the new Video Assistant Referee program for the Professional Referees Organization, which handles MLS officiating. Refs are set to have video review for the first time in MLS this summer and at next year’s World Cup in Russia. The Frings incident “would have been a situation where, absolutely, 100% a recommendation would have been made by the video assistant referee for an on-field review,” says Webb. “And I’m pretty sure that would have led to the awarding of a penalty kick and a red card.”

He smiles. “And then who knows what would have happened?”