Saturday, June 17, 2006

I don't know soccer very well.

But I know that Marcelo Balboa, ABC's World Cup analyst, is good friends with many of the guys on the team. I understand that he's upset with official Jorge Larrionda for Pablo Mastroenni's sending off before half. The old "makeup call" saw came out (I've noticed that only those who have never officiated believe in this animal). Still, Mastroenni's foul wasn't as obviously a cheap shot as Italy's Daniele De Rossi's sending-off elbow earlier. I thought it was a yellow...but I don't know soccer at all.

So I thought I'd look for another unbiased see if Balboa's harsh and unrelenting criticism is in line.

From the BBC's story on the game:

"[Mastroenni's] two-footed, reckless lunge on Pirlo was deserving of a red card and left referee Jorge Larrionda with little option."

From the London Sunday Times (a story called "The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly"):

"There were 34 fouls, some of them disgraceful. There were three red cards, all of them justified, and three more yellow cards that might have turned the deeper colour. There were two goals, two memorable saves from either goalkeeper, and a match of shame petered out.

"This turned into the first brutal and calculatedly ugly affair of the tournament. The Americans allowed themselves to be sucked in and within the first 47 minutes the players gave the Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda no option but to send off three players...

"Pablo Mastroeni lunged into a two-footed tackle on the shin of Andrea Pirlo — so late and so vicious, it was a wonder there was no breaking of bone — and was dismissed."

Shall we leave England? OK. Staying in the English-speaking world, however, here's the description of the game from the Times of India:

"It wasn't warfare, but this gripping contest was far from friendly. Three-time world champions Italy had Daniele De Rossi sent off in the 28th minute for elbowing Brian McBride and the USA's Pablo Mastroeni shortly followed him down the tunnel for clattering into Andrea Pirlo."

A third continent, anyone? Let's go to the Sydney Morning Herald:

"IT WAS the United States' own fault that they found themselves with nine players - one fewer than the Italians - for nearly half of this extraordinary match...

"[The Italians'] suicidal tendency turned out to be shared by the US midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, who, with the interval looming, launched a dangerous challenge, late and high on Andrea Pirlo's ankle, to which the Uruguayan referee had no hesitation in responding with the second red of the first half. "

All right--I'm sold. The rest of the English-speaking world does not believe the US got jobbed. They think the calls were legitimate.

I'm glad I looked for a second opinion...and a third...and a fourth. In the end, I'll take the unbiased rest-of-the-world's view over our former players' view for sure.

Makeup call? Nope.


At 11:18 AM, Blogger Trent said...

I respectfully disagree. If this was England vs. Italy, two countries with established football pedigrees, the news would have been one-way traffic about how the referee had a vendetta against the English and how the Italians, per usual, milked every call and unfairly influenced the referee's decision-making.

No one has welcomed the US onto football's world stage. Everyone was quite happy when the US didn't care, and it's a full-time job for British journalists to remind everyone on the globe how out of our depth the US is in the big leagues and how no one in the US cares about the sport--despite evidence to the contrary.

I'm not claiming a conspiracy but calls in this World Cup have slanted heavily towards the established soccer nations. Mastroeni's tackle did not show a will towards violence--like De Rossi's elbow did--and there are dozens of similar tackles in this tournament each day. A yellow card and a stern word, certainly. But take a look at any other straight red cards given in the tournament (or in any league) and you'll find that they are either 1) a case of a last defender and therefore a mandatory red, or 2) a blatantly violent act where the ball isn't the objective. You won't find another case of a player getting ejected for what amounted to a hard, poorly timed tackle. If this was England, Brazil, Argentina, or even Italy it would have been a yellow.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Blogging Ref said...


Point taken. But the point is limited to England. India and Australia are also outside soccer's worldwide country club, yet their press seemed to be on Larrionda's side. How do you explain that?

At 8:31 PM, Blogger Trent said...

Simple. Can you name two countries more influenced by England than India and Australia? They're both far more tuned into the world game--as defined by Europe in general and England specifically--than America is.

This may sound paranoid but my experience in watching world soccer for about 15 years has been one long lesson in certain teams and countries getting preferential treatment both on the pitch and in the press. England has won nothing in the game since 1966 yet there's always speculation that they're going to finally win the big one. Sort of like Notre Dame always being ranked highly in the college football AP polls even when the team is mediocre. And most of the foreign press is just as quick to round on the American team.

I'll admit I'm highly partisan but I'm also not blind. I will reiterate, if this was England vs. Italy with two English players getting sent off in similar circumstances, I guarantee there would be international outrage in the English-friendly press. Since it's the US, everyone's more than happy to believe they deserved it.

At 9:33 PM, Blogger Blogging Ref said...


I'm just not seeing it. The BBC article, while critical of Mastroenni and Pope, was very complimentary of the US, and even felt they deserved the win: "A point was the least USA deserved after a display full of spirit and determination in Kaiserslautern." The Times was equally angry with the Americans and Italians, and even believe that the Italians started what it saw as thuggery.

Your accurate observation--that the English-friendly press would be angry if two English players were sent off--says to me that we can't trust the press of the offended country, which is why I'm more inclined to believe an impartial observer than Balboa, Lalas, Wynalda, and the other close friends of the involved parties.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Trent said...

I don't blame you. In fact, I still had the game on DVR and last night I watched the two fouls that got the players sent off, to see if the space of a few days cooling off would change my perspective. It didn't.

The first tackle is poorly timed but not malicious and certainly not launched with the intent to injury. A definite yellow and a stern word, but absolutely not a straight red. I have watched *a lot* of soccer in my life, and straight reds are earned by deliberate violent conduct.

Ejecting a player is the most severe, game-altering punishment a referee can dole out. Unlike American sports where ejected players just go to the locker room, in soccer the team plays down a man. Good referees talk to the players and say "One more like that and you're gone." Which is why there are so few straight reds and why a second yellow card shouldn't be for a borderline infraction.

I'm arguing--independently from Balboa, Lalas, Wynalda, and others who are more cheerleaders than commentators, and who I disagree with about 90% of the time--that the referee must have felt that Mastroeni must have been deliberately trying to send the player to the hospital in order to go for the straight red. The replays don't support that position but hey, the game's fast and every referee can make a mistake. I would say this is a wrong call, a bad call, and a rash call but I'm not claiming incompetence yet.

Pope's second yellow card is the breaking point for me. Watching it again, it's hardly a foul, rarely a yellow, and *never* a second yellow. Again, ejecting a player is the harshest penalty a referee can levy and players usually earn it through persistent and often escalating number of fouls, or through foul play like a deliberate handball or fouling a player after they're been beaten. The situation with Pope's tackle? A 50/50 ball where Pope gets equal parts ball and man two minutes after half time. The referee could have easily said "One more and you're done," but instead he takes the most drastic option available, mere minutes after having just taking the most drastic option available? It's poor refereeing and it ruined the game.

Before the game there was this furor over the Yanks getting drilled 3-0 in their first game and the pre-match talk against Italy was all about "war" so I think it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that the world expected this game to be a bloodbath; in hindsight, is it any surprise the ref was quick to hand out cards against a team everyone expected to be the aggressor?

The perception is that America is unskillful and compensates through hard work and brute force. This isn't a hot talking point in the world press because it's a non-issue, but rather because it happened to the US and no one really cares about them. Had the reverse happened to one of the "skillful" teams tipped to go far in the tournament, there would be outrage and condemnation. But as it is, I think the "neutral" English press saw this as a game of the cheating Italians against an over-aggressive US side, and both got exactly what they deserved.

Not to harp on this subject. But the English press--and I would include the English press coming from former colonies--is not exactly an impartial source for soccer news, either.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Blogging Ref said...


If I understand your argument, you're stating there is an inherent anti-US-soccer bias in two kinds of countries: traditional soccer powers (who don't want the US to be a part of the party) and especially in former British colonies (who feel the same way, only more). This means there's virtually no country in the world with an unbiased perspective on this...except, strangely, us. To put it another way, your argument is that it means that just about every sportswriter in the world is out to get our team. I just don't buy into international conspiracy theories, especially since the BBC's article was so complimentary towards the US's effort.

Your argument also makes it tough on a monolingual like me, since the only English-speaking country in the world that isn't a former English colony (if my history is accurate) is Liberia. I can't find a Liberian account of the US/Italy match (which is all the better...they have better things to spend their time and money on).

My effort to find other countries' perspectives on the game (given in English) has led to The Japan Times this morning, who also think both US red cards were legitimate. I'll grant that the author, James Mulligan, is probably not Japanese, but he calls Mastroenni's tackle "a studs-up challenge...a clear-cut red card."

I appreciate your careful perspective on the calls. From my limited-for-the-world-but-OK-for-Americans soccer experience, I can definitely see Mastroenni's challenge as a yellow. As for Pope, I saw 3-4 challenges late in the first half that could just as easily have been his second take is that he simply played stupidly after his first, and was going to go under any circumstances. I'd bet twenty bucks that Larrionda had verbally warned him for one of those like Balboa insisted he hadn't.

I just don't think the US suddenly has a monopoly on the world's soccer knowledge, especially in such an emotional situation.

Remember also that I come at this from a referee's perspective. I've been yelled at in enough emotional situations to know that this ridiculous barking (in which you dont' seem to be a participant) is usually a knee-jerk reaction. I've been accused of everything Larrionda is being accused of--stupid shouts of "Let 'em play!" when the game is on the edge of a riot, for instance. I've also noticed a disturbing recent trend of the TV to instantaeously make the game's #1 story "oh, those incompetent refs" when the ump/refs may well have been either correct or making a tough call without benefit of 24 slow-motion replay angles. See the ALCS, the Super Bowl, and now this. If I have a bias, it's for the ref--but I won't apologize for that, since nobody else is going to have his back.

Except, in this case, for most of the world's press outside of the US.

Thanks for your comments--I apreciate the civility, which I bet I wouldn't find elsewhere on this subject.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Trent said...

To clarify my position, there are a few tiers of teams. There are teams who "ought" to win all the time (Italy, Brazil, Germany) there are teams who are supposed to put in a good showing (teams like Ecuador, Sweden), and teams who are just supposed to show up. Complaining almost always comes from the press of the teams who "ought" to win, and it's almost always directed at teams who are just supposed to show up. For instance, there's been chatter that Australia is playing too rough. The argument, apparently, is that the Aussies don't have enough skill so they need to foul and potentially hurt legit stars like those from Brazil. This is the same bias I think we're seeing between the US and Italy. The problem with the US is that we don't have a great image around the world so it's easy for the neutral to rag on our team for being over-aggressive.

The only way to get an unbiased perspective is to ignore the media and trust your own eyes. The English media is perhaps the worst; I've watched a number of Premier League games then scratched my head reading the match report, wondering what game the journalist watched.

If you're still interested, take a look here:

I think this person's comments in the last paragraph are spot on. And play the video here:

Listen to the German announcers. The translation goes something like this:
- Oww! Red card! Direct red card? Yellow, yes. But red?-
Unfortunately my limited knowledge of German fails me but the announcer's immediate reaction is incredulity.

I don't mean to drag this out any longer but thought you might be interested. In it. And thanks for being open-minded as well. Internet discussions with strangers usually turn into flame-wars, so I appreciate you being receptive to my comments.

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Blogging Ref said...


Nah...not dragged on at all.

I guess my only argument is that this is a call that reasonable people can disagree about, and Larrionda was right on the play. Cries of "makeup call," "incompetence," or worse feel out of bounds to me. I can totally see this going yellow; many others feel Larrionda had "no choice." I'm not willing to say the rest of the world is biased.

I trust my own eyes, but I also trust Larrionda's. He's earned this assignment for a reason.

Like your blog. I'll visit from time to time.


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