JOHANNESBURG — Modern soccer has turned the penalty area into a wrestling ring, and that's what cost the United States victory in its World Cup match against Slovenia on Friday.
Maurice Edu committed no foul as he scored from just over six yards.
However, just about every other player in the penalty area was holding, grabbing, pulling or pushing as the U.S. free kick sailed in to the 18-yard zone.
Referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali saw one of several fouls. Unluckily for the U.S., he saw the only one committed by an American, defender Carlos Bocanegra.
Bocanegra had his arms around Slovenia substitute Nejc Pecnik and was preventing him from jumping for the ball.
Coulibaly was ideally placed to see the foul he called. He was 10 yards away from Edu as the striker hit the ball home, but the Bocanegra-Pecnik grappling took place just one yard away, in the referee's direct line of sight.
The 39-year-old referee, who has been officiating in tough African competitions for 17 years and called the final of the African Cup of Nations between Ghana and Egypt earlier this year, didn't hesitate to do his job.
But he couldn't see everything in the penalty area. So Coulibaly missed two American players being held and grabbed in different parts of the penalty area by Slovenian players.
Unjust? Certainly, but who's to blame? The referee or the players?
Referees are under orders from FIFA to clamp down on the plague of fouls in the penalty area, but it's proving virtually impossible.
English referee Howard Webb received death threats after he penalized a Polish defender for fouling an Austrian attacker in the penalty area in the 2008 European Championships. The penalty, deep into added time, gave Austria a crucial draw and led to Webb having his life threatened and being condemned by the Polish prime minister.
Most referees are unwilling to penalize the defending team, preferring to reject goals rather than give them. This is what Coulibaly did Friday and it cost the United States a victory that would have brought the team close to qualifying for the next round.
Instead, the team is struggling to qualify and must beat Algeria in Pretoria on Wednesday to have any chance of qualifying.
The referee's job is impossible in these situations.
In any game — from the lowest league to the World Cup — if eight players are fouling each other in the penalty area, the referee can only see a small number of the penalties that are occurring. Cynical professional players tumble and dive in the penalty area, trying to trick the ref into giving a penalty and only television replays reveal the full madness of their actions.
FIFA has rejected the use of video technology, preferring to try to maintain the spontaneous nature of soccer and, in the process, inherently rejecting U.S. sports like football and, to a lesser extent, baseball, that have incorporated replay into the sport.
The only nod FIFA has made is to allow the use of two extra assistants to police the penalty area in some European competitions and help the referee.
Who knows if they would have helped Coulibaly reach his decision at Johannesburg's Ellis Park.
Simon Haydon is a referee who has officiated amateur English soccer leagues for 10 years.
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