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CROSSING THE LINE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost lost amid the noisy celebrations of the U.S. women’s World Cup victory over China on Saturday was a dirty little detail. The Americans cheated.

But the fact that the U.S. won the game in a 5-4 penalty-kick shootout because goalkeeper Briana Scurry broke the rules during the tiebreaker was definitely not lost on China.

“Unbelievable!” said the headline in the Shanghai News’ sports pages. A three-photo display revealed, frame by frame, that Scurry scrambled forward several feet before her opponent, Liu Ying, had reached the ball. The result: a spectacular save that helped clinch the World Cup for the U.S. team.

The rules state that a goalie can move left or right on the goal line, but not forward until the ball is kicked.

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Another newspaper, the Shanghai Youth Daily, reprinted the same photo sequence and devoted a whole page to the finale of the game that went into two sudden-death overtime periods before the shootout.

The papers quoted Scurry’s admission to The Times after the game that she stepped forward to narrow the angle before Liu kicked the ball. She knew it was against the rules, she said, but the referee didn’t call her on it.

“Everybody does it,” Scurry said. “It’s only cheating if you get caught.”

Scurry described testing the referee’s reaction by moving early off the goal line on the first of the five penalty kicks. “I came out [early] to see what she was going to give you,” Scurry said. “If she calls the kick back, fine. But she didn’t, so I was going to stay with it.”

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Gao Hong, the Chinese goalkeeper with a penchant for staring down her opponents, had this to say about Scurry’s confession:

“At the least,” she said wryly after filming a TV special in Beijing, “I think the American goalie is very honest, very honest.”

The Chinese women returned with their silver medals to a hero’s welcome in China, where they were praised by President Jiang Zemin and other top leaders. None of the top officials mentioned the questionable play, perhaps because the match had become the arena for “soccer diplomacy” for the two countries’ leaders. Before the match, Jiang had only grudgingly spoken to President Clinton since the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May. But they have exchanged congratulatory messages over the World Cup, reopening dialogue.

Nevertheless, people all over China were talking about the play.

“We think the goalie is a cheater. Our players gave their all, and the goalie’s dishonest actions made a mockery of their sincere efforts,” said Shanghai worker Wang Guoliang, 62. “Wait until we meet again in the Olympics next year.”

Beijing’s local evening news quoted player Liu Ailing’s explanation of why the team didn’t protest Scurry’s maneuvering.

“Because we were all in the middle of the field, and from our angle, none of us noticed the American goalie broke the rules and moved forward,” she said. “But the referee could see and she had every right to let Liu Ying kick again. But she didn’t call it, and no one could do anything about it.”

Shanghai soccer player and fan Zhang Hong, 28, said entire Web sites were devoted to discussion of the shootout. “It’s a shame for our team, but it seems acceptable in [soccer] to win any way you can. Remember Maradona’s goal scored by the ‘hand of God?’ Maybe the American goalie was helped by the ‘foot of God.’ ”

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For the Chinese media, Scurry’s sleight of foot was to be expected. In the 1996 Olympics, China’s women lost to the U.S., 2-1, and claimed that the winning goal had been scored on an offsides play that the referee let go. The Yangcheng evening news said that the women were robbed twice Saturday by the referee: a header by Fan Yunjie in sudden death looked as if it was a game winner--a slow-motion replay showed the ball crossed the goal line. But Kristine Lilly headed the ball out of the goal, and won the MVP award.

Liu Ying told the Shanghai Youth Daily that she felt responsible for the loss and that she couldn’t stop crying after the game. But she added that it didn’t matter to her if Scurry advanced early--if the shot had been placed better, it would have gone in anyway.

“The ball didn’t go where I wanted it to go,” she said. “It went to Scurry.”

Cai Minrong of The Times’ Shanghai bureau contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE RULE

LAW 14: THE PENALTY KICK

The defending goalkeeper:

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* Remains on the goal line, facing the kicker, between the goal posts until the ball has been kicked

Source: The Laws of the Game, on FIFA Web site


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