Every fan is a bit of a conspiracy theorist. Every outcome can be chalked up (unjustly) to poor judgment or prejudice on the part of the referee. If the U.S. wanted to insure themselves against such a fate, they could have learned from their match against England and played with urgency from the first whistle. Torres could have tucked back and picked up Birsa rushing on to score the first goal. Demerit and Onyewu could have communicated to keep Ljubijankic offsides on the second. But it is hard to shake the feeling that the United States were playing against a twelfth man today in Johanesburg: Koman Coulibaly, of Mali.
Yes, yes, the fateful call in the eighty-sixth minute—was it a foul? Offsides? Coulibaly, wisely perhaps, chose not to indicate—but I’m thinking back to much earlier in the half, when I said, half-jokingly to my companion, “the referee is biased against America.” The ranting of an aggrieved and frustrated fan? Perhaps. But in the fortieth minute, Robby Findley was booked for a ball that appeared to graze his hand before it smashed into his face—a call that will keep him out of the team’s final match against Algeria. And early in the second half, Clint Dempsey was tackled (football style, not futbol) in the box off a set piece. Then in the sixty-eighth minute, when Altidore was dragged down by the last man at the edge of the penalty, the Slovenian defender was spared a mandatory sendoff. Landon Donovan’s expression when he saw the color of the card said it all.
I have the curse of TiVo. I only realized following a jubilant—and, in my universe, proleptic—phone call from a friend celebrating Bradley’s brilliant equalizer that I was three minutes behind the live feed. And now all I can do is replay the eighty-sixth minute. There’s Donovan’s kick. There’s the Americans—Edu especially—well back of their Slovenian counterparts. There’s Bradley gripped in a bear bug. There’s Altidore receiving a body blow to knock his run askew. There’s Maurice Edu breaking free to score!
It’s hard to say who looked the most devastated at the end of the match. My pick, however, is Alexi Lalas, who may have nearly cried during his immediate post-game punditry. Following the disallowed goal, Coulibaly’s Wikipedia page was immediately defaced (a uniquely modern form of attack). The Twitter-scape cried every form of corruption. But in the end, I have no heart for conspiracy theories. Just an unshakable disquiet at a moment when I should be feeling great pride in the heart-bursting performance of Donovan and the U.S. side.