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Nobody above suspicion

Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2002

On the eve of the semifinals, variations on the American cry ''We wuz robbed!'' litter the World Cup landscape. They cast suspicion on everyone packing a whistle and threaten to turn this event into another Olympic-scale figure-skating officiating mess.

No one has asked FIFA to begin smelting another of those 9-pound gold trophies -- yet. But no sooner did the overheated Italian newspapers stop calling for the heads of referees than the Spanish papers started.

Funny, isn't it, how winners never need excuses and losers never come up with enough?

After South Korea made Spain its third prominent European victim, the headline ''Robbery'' bannered every Madrid-based daily, from ABC on the right to the El Pais on the left. For once, at least, both sides of the political spectrum went to the same well for material.

Embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter is fighting accusations of corruption inside his regime, but he, too, found time to rip his own refs.

''A disaster,'' he called some linesmen, describing the officiating as ''the only negative aspect of this World Cup.''

Chimed in Pele, the most respected name the game has known, ''the level of referees is very poor, very low.''

Hard as that might be to argue, the officials have nothing on the parties they've supposedly harmed.

Just hours after South Korean forward Ahn Jung-hwan headed home the winner against Italy, the owner of Italian team Perugia ordered Ahn to find another team for next season. Italian TV network RAI, meanwhile, is exploring a lawsuit against FIFA, contending negligence in selecting the referees. As if the point needed reinforcement, fans of the Azzuri zipped off 400,000 irate -- and worse -- e-mails to soccer's worldwide governing body.

One, recalled FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper, ''suggested I perish as rapidly as possible.''

In an admirably measured response, Cooper said ''referees are only human.''

''If the game was organized in a machinelike way, it would no longer be so interesting, and would you continue to be in love with the game if it was run like a machine? Would you continue to be in love with your wife or girlfriend if she were run like a machine?''

Added Cooper afterward, ''I thought that was a line that might appeal to most Italians.''

Apparently, it didn't translate well into Spanish.

The chief of Spain's federation resigned Sunday from FIFA's referee committee in protest, and columnist Daniel Arcucci of the normally reserved Argentine daily La Nacion described himself ''shaking with anger'' when he demanded the World Cup ''should be annulled right now, declared null and void ... everything will be shrouded in doubt and suspicion.''

Conspiracies abound, and the most popular is that co-host South Korea benefitted from home-cooked refereeing because FIFA wanted an Asian team in the semifinals for the first time.

Portugal, the first of the three overrated, underprepared European powers exposed by the hardworking Red Devils, flashed the conspiracy card when its players returned home to disgruntled fans waiting at the airport.

Italy and Spain showed similar hands after succumbing in the cauldron of South Korea's stadiums packed by red-shirted fans.

To be fair, the officiating has been terrible in stretches. Italy claims at least five goals disallowed over the course of three games because of bad calls and missed ones. Spain contends it lost three goals against Korea in its quarterfinal defeat alone. Replays show several of the claims have merit.

But isn't that what separates soccer from the other sports? It's supposed to be less about justice than accepting fate and the hard circumstances of life. It's why goals are so precious and grievances so long-lasting, why errors by everybody involved are part of the folklore of the game.

It's why the mention of Englishman Geoff Hurst's ''Wembley goal'' inspires disgust in Germans nearly 40 years later. And Maradona's ''Hand of God'' goal for Argentina in 1986 is still discussed in resigned tones by the Englishmen whose hopes it shattered.

And so perhaps it's no coincidence that all of the semifinalists -- Germany, which plays South Korea; and Brazil and Turkey, who play each other for the second time in the tournament -- have already been embroiled in officiating controversies of their own.

The Germans advanced with a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over the United States, but not before defender Torsten Frings was accused of using his left arm to stop Gregg Berhalter's header from crossing the goal line.

No penalty kick was awarded, but veteran German goalkeeper and captain Oliver Kahn warned teammates not to get rattled if the same play is called the other way Tuesday night in Seoul.

''We may have one or two refereeing decisions against us. That's normal,'' Kahn said. ''It's called advantage. We must not let it demoralize us.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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