Michael Bradley looks for an explanation from Koman Coulibaly after he disallowed Maurice Edus goal.
  • Andy Mead/ YCJ
  • Michael Bradley looks for an explanation from Koman Coulibaly after he disallowed Maurice Edu’s goal.

RICHMOND, VA—The biggest shame of the seemingly inexplicable decision by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly to disallow Maurice Edu’s apparent winner for the U.S. against Slovenia today may not have been the fact the U.S. did not grab all three points. Rather, it’s that we will be talking about the referee and not the fact that for the first time in my life, I saw a U.S. soccer fan crying at a match, after Michael Bradley’s goal to tie the game at 2. That level of emotion you expect from the English or Argentines, but not till now from Americans.

But talk about the referees we must. Coulibaly’s call against Edu repeated a pattern in which the official time and again called fouls against the attacking team—usually the U.S.—on congested free kick and corner kick situations in the box. Could you have spotted an infraction of the laws by a U.S. player if you did a free frame on the controversial play? Almost certainly. But there were at least two or three more by Slovenian players, including a PK-quality foul on Bradley. The general rule in such situations is that you let grabbing and pushing go unless someone gets knocked over or it somehow directly affects the players on the ball or the keeper.

But this official doesn’t officiate year-round in one of the top professional leagues, and it showed not just on the last call but throughout the match. (To be fair to Coulibaly, consider two points: First, he blew his whistle well before Edu had his touch, meaning he had no idea it would amount to disallowing a goal; second, the initial foul on Jozy Altidore setting up the free quick was questionable. Possibly the Slovenians might feel the call on Edu’s goal falls in the two-wrongs-make-a-right category.) This raises the perennial question: should the sport’s premier event also have the sport’s most experienced, proven officials?

This comes up every World Cup. As bad as the call was today, it arguably was more explicable and less damaging to the U.S. than the flukey penalty called against America in 2006 against Ghana.

The problem with sticking to only referees in the top leagues is that de facto you are ensuring all or almost all World Cup referees would be either European or perhaps South American. This might be perceived as unfair to Africa, Asia and even North America.

On the other hand, this is the pinnacle of the sport, and fans come to watch the players, not the referees. Whatever can be done to make the game go better and give the players from around the world the best chance to show their skills in the fairest possible setting should be done.

So here’s a modest proposal: World Cup referees must work year-round in either a) the top rated professional league in their continent or b) one of the top 15 professional leagues in the world. You’d have to come up with a metric for ranking different leagues, but that should not be hard. The proposal here would mean you’d have representation from every continent, but with all working year round in leagues with a high standard. It would be very tough on future referees from Mali to be picked under this proposal, but perhaps it can be coupled with a system to allow promising referees from “smaller countries” to have a chance in one of the designated top leagues.

In any case, something should be done. The unfortunate scene at the end of the US-Slovenia game was American players crying at the referee. It should have been American fans crying tears of joy after an epic comeback victory.