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Monday, June 21, 2010
FIFA unfazed by criticism of refs

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG -- Brazilian star Kaka wasn't even looking at Kader Keita when the Ivory Coast player made the tiniest amount of contact with one of the most mild-mannered guys in the game. That didn't stop Keita from collapsing to the ground, writhing and howling as if mortally wounded.

It was, at the very most, a foul. But by giving Kaka his second yellow of the night and, with it, an automatic ejection, the referee touched off a new round of criticism. Between the "We Wuz Robbed!" goal that wasn't, the blatant hand balls, or the acting jobs that are so over-the-top the Screen Actors Guild ought to demand dues, it's enough to make anyone wonder what the refs at the World Cup are watching.

As far as FIFA is concerned, they're watching just fine.

"We are very, very satisfied with the performance of the referees," Jose-Marcia Garcia-Aranda, head of refereeing for the sport's governing body, said Monday.

That's one person, at least.

Questionable calls are bound to happen in a sport that depends on the human eye to right wrongs. It's part of the game's charm, and it gives fans endless ammunition for arguments over a pint or two. Good-naturedly, of course.

The gaffes at this World Cup have been so obvious, however, and have had enough of an impact on games that Monday's availability with Garcia-Aranda and the referees was an attention-grabber. Never mind that no one would comment on specific calls. Or that France's Stephane Lannoy, who red-carded Kaka, and Mali's Koman Coulibaly, who waved off what would have been a game-winner for the Americans against Slovenia, were "traveling" and unable to attend.

"In my opinion, the decision-making here has been pretty consistent and pretty accurate," said Howard Webb, one of the most respected refs in the game and a favorite to work the World Cup title game after officiating the Champions League final.

Try telling that to the folks watching.

Especially if they saw Kaka being sent off Sunday night. Hardly one of the game's troublemakers, he's a gentle sort who hasn't had a red card in at least seven years. Never in a Brazil uniform.

"I'm not going to talk about the ejection," Kaka said after the game. "The images tell it all."

Keita and Kaka both appeared to have their eyes on the ball when they collided. Kaka did raise his right elbow slightly, but it appeared to be more defensive than thuggish. And it certainly wasn't enough to merit Keita's Oscar-worthy histrionics. Keita buried his face in his hands as if trying to keep his eyeball from falling out, crumpled to the ground and rolled around in agony for several minutes while his teammates cried foul.

Yet when play resumed, there was Keita, looking none the worse.

FIFA wasn't biting when asked about it Monday -- good thing, because there was a similar incident a few hours later in the Switzerland-Chile game.

Switzerland played a man down after midfielder Valon Behrami was sent off in the 31st minute with a straight red card, getting tangled up with not one, but two Chilean players. Never mind that the second Chilean appeared to be going down in agony before contact was even made.

"The red card was not even a yellow card," Swiss coach Otto Hitzfeld blustered after the 1-0 loss, accusing Chile's players of putting on "quite a performance."

Brazil's Luis Fabiano didn't even bother trying to deny he'd handled the ball on the way to his second goal Sunday night. Even 6-year-olds know goalkeepers are the only players who can use their hands in soccer, yet Lannoy was laughing when he let Luis Fabiano know afterward that he was onto the Brazilian.

In the U.S. game, Coulibaly's whistle not only nullified Maurice Edu's goal, it penalized the Americans and prompted a wave of outrage. Several days later, the U.S. players were still getting text messages and e-mails about it from folks back home.

"In some ways it's really heartening to see how much people care," Landon Donovan said.

Part of the problem, particularly for U.S. fans, is that soccer refs aren't required to -- and rarely do -- explain their decisions. If there's a bad call in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, someone will weigh in within a few hours. Even if it's just to say it's being examined.

FIFA? Not so much.

"The duty of the referees is not to explain their decision ... [but to] try to do their best on the field of play," Garcia-Aranda said. "[Otherwise] they are not focused on the game, they are focused on the media."

While some refs said they wouldn't mind explaining themselves and can even see the merit of it, don't expect it to happen anytime soon. Ditto for other measures that could bring a little more transparency to questionable calls.

Video replay isn't an option so long as Sepp Blatter is FIFA president, and he's all but certain to be re-elected to a fourth four-year term next year. And the idea of adding an extra set of eyes behind each goal has been kicked into the long grass and not likely to resurface anytime soon.

"We're all accustomed to the fact that if it's an NFL playoff game and there's a call that's in question, there will be a statement by the league from the referees, but FIFA operates differently," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "From our end, we get used to that. And we all have friends and family who ask us the same questions that most of you ask, and you end up saying that's just how it is sometimes, and then you move on and you get ready for the next game."

In other words, the griping will go on.