The refereeing is threatening to ruin the Cup. At this point we should all be talking about Maxi Rodriguez's goal against Mexico(my winner for Goal of the Tournament), David Beckham's beautiful free kick goal that rescued a hapless Ingerlund, and how the Germans so effortlessly brushed aside a Sweden team that, by most accounts, looked like the best team in Group B. Instead, all the focus is on the Russian referee who doled out 16 yellow cards and 4 red cards in the Portugal v. Holland match. The referee lost control of the game from the moment Mark Van Bommel went Eric Cantona on Cristiano Ronaldo and kung fu kicked him iin his thigh. Next up was Khalid Boulahrouz to put a hurting on Ronaldo and the cards kept piling up. Before you knew it the Portuguese lost Costinha and Deco and the Dutch lost two other players.
There's no question here that the referee let the game get out of hand and he should not referee another match. In fact, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the referee also deserved a yellow card for his performance. Go figure. But as much as I would like to join in with everyone else and kill the messenger, I'm afraid the true culprit is FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Before the tournament began Blatter wanted referees to issue cards for tackles from behind, time wasting and anything that the referees thought did not comport with FIFA's emphasis on fair play. Yesterday's referee did just that: he gave cards for everything that looked remotely dangerous. The same can be said for the German referee who called a penalty on U.S. defender Onyewu right before halftime in the elimination game against Ghana. Ditto for Graham Poll who gave three yellow cards to Josip Simunic in the Croatia v. Australia match. The referee in the Italy v. U.S. match also lost the plot, sending off three players. These referees are the best in the world. They didn't become bad refs overnight. What is spurring them on to such poor officiating is the FIFA directive ordering them to crackdown. Granted, any new law leaves room for interpretation and the referees should use common sense in implementing FIFA's directive. We don't know, however, what pressure they are under or what penalties they will incur for failing to follow the letter of the law. As a result, we get referees issuing yellow cards for fouls that otherwise would only yield a warning to the player to cool it and then play would resume.
What is lost in all of this is the focus on what actually happened on the field(Yes, in America it's called a field and not a "pitch." Few things annoy me more than American announcers calling the soccer field the "pitch." Let's try not to poach everything from the Brits and try to create our own lexicon for the game). Maniche's goal was a result of beautiful passing in the box, the type of play we usually associate with the Dutch. Dutch football probably took a greater hit than any other from this tournament. The reason being is that the Dutch have always pride themselves on beautiful, fluid attacking football going back to the days of the old Cryuff Ajax teams of the 70s all the way up to their heartbreaking defeat against the Brazilians in 1998. Since then, however, the Dutch have failed to develop any talent similar to that of Van Basten, Gullit, Bergkamp or even a midfielder like Davids. Consequently, the missed the Cup in '02, were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage of Euro 2004 and, despite their passage into the round of 16, failed to score a single goal from the 27th minute of their second game in the group stages against the Ivory Coast. This is a time for reflection on Dutch Football and just how they will get it together for Euro 2008.
The main thing that stuck in my mind from the Dutch attack on Sunday was how easily Portugues right back Miguel handled Arjen Robben. It got so bad in the second half that Robben had to switch to the opposite side to get away from Miguel and receive the ball. Also, the announcers kept calling for Van Nistelrooy to enter the game but he hasn't looked like a dangerous player since 2004(Marelo Balboa who announces the games for ESPN has little knowledge of the game, even though he played in three World Cups for the U.S. I'm convinced they just give him a sheet of statistics and he just parrots off whatever information is on it). The one bright spot for the Dutch as my favorite Dutch commentator Ernst Bouwes pointed out is that the Dutch are young and have a talented crop of players coming up(Their under 21 side won the European Championship).
Looking forward to the quarterfinal matchup between England and Portugal, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to go John Kerry on this one and flip flop. Before the tournament started I had Portugal winning this match. Now, however, they have to play without Deco and Ronaldo. They still have Figo and Maniche which gives them a punchers chance, at the very least. They also have Phil Scolari who ousted the English team from the '02 Cup with Brazil and also coached the Portuguese when they defeated England on penalty kicks in Euro 2004. I think it's time for England to have a coming out party. They haven't played well in a single game, yet the keep on winning. Beckham is pretty much a passenger on the field until there is a free kick. To his credit though he has taken them well and has contributed as much as anyone, except maybe Joe Cole, to Ingerlund being this far in the tournament. Who knows, maybe England will prove me wrong and win it all. It wouldn't be the first time this tournament I was wrong. I was a real fool for picking Sweden to beat Germany. Nothing I saw indicated that the Germans would go down against the Swedes while everything the Swedes showed in the group stages suggested they were a misfiring side, not ready for the big time. When Larsson missed the penalty kick in the second half, I knew it was all over for the Swedes. In truth, it was over in the 13th minute. By then Lukas Podolski had already scored two goals for the Germans to put them ahead 2-0. Next up for the Germans is Argentina. I had this quarterfinal matchup in the run up to the tournament and I have Argentina winning it still. I'll have front row seats for this one. Let's hope the referees don't ruin the night in Berlin.