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Red Cards and a Black Eye

The 2006 World Cup has been irrevocably tainted.

It happened here Sunday night in a second-round game between Portugal and the Netherlands that some will call memorable and others will label a disgrace.

Disgrace is the better fit.

The Portuguese won, 1-0, to advance to the quarterfinals, but earned no friends from the time-wasting and sly tricks played by captain Luis Figo and Co. Or perhaps Figo believes head-butting an opponent is all part of the game.

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It will take years for the Dutch to repair their once-proud reputation for stylish, attacking soccer. The team fielded by Coach Marco van Basten turned to violence when its skills fell woefully short.

If Portugal was the pickpocket, then the Netherlands was the thug.

Or perhaps Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz believes slapping an opponent in the face is appropriate behavior.

And then there were the referees.

Referee Valentin Ivanov of Russia and his two Russian assistants, Nikolay Golubev and Evgueni Volnin, were so far out of their depth that they couldn’t see the shore, let alone touch bottom.

No World Cup game in 76 years had featured four red cards. This one did.

The high for yellow cards in a World Cup game is 16 or 18, depending on the record book. This game had 16.

World soccer’s governing body is FIFA, whose president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, stated categorically before the tournament began that the referees selected to officiate the event “are currently the best match officials in the world.”

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If that’s the case, then the worst really must be something to see.

Ivanov was atrocious. Pitiful.

Never mind that English referee Graham Poll handed out three yellow cards to the same player. Never mind that Mexican referee Benito Archundia failed to see France score against South Korea when the ball clearly crossed the goal line. Never mind that there have been numerous other bad calls at Germany ’06.

All those mistakes are minor by comparison with what Ivanov achieved Sunday night.

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Even Van Basten, one of the world’s great players in his day who is still feeling his way as a coach, was astounded.

“It’s a pity that the referee made a mess of this game,” he said. “I don’t want to say too hard, but in the end I think you can say it because it was just a mess.”

Ivanov and his crew had no control from start to finish. Once the players realized he was powerless, fouls degenerated into shoving and tripping, eventually resulting in on-field brawls, right in front of the hapless officials.

The sad thing was that in between one fracas or another, there were moments of sublime play, enough to fill a highlight reel.

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Blown calls are one thing, but when they are likely to directly influence the outcome of a tournament there is no hope for those, such as Blatter, who refuse to see reality through their rose-colored shades.

This is the reality created by Ivanov on Sunday night:

By showing Portugal’s Brazilian-born playmaker Deco a yellow card for wasting time, and then a red card because it was Deco’s second yellow of the night, Ivanov has robbed the upcoming England-Portugal quarterfinal of potentially its most exciting player.

A word of warning would have sufficed, especially given the circumstances.

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Deco was holding the ball, refusing to allow the Netherlands’ Phillip Cocu to take it from him for a free kick after a disputed play. Then Cocu wrapped his arms around Deco and threw him to the ground.

There was no punishment for Cocu. But Deco will sit out Portugal’s biggest game in the 40 years since it last reached the quarterfinals.

If England wins and Portugal is ousted, the question will always remain: If FIFA had selected its referees better, if Ivanov had enough common sense and natural authority to have a serious word with players instead of yanking out card after card, if Deco had not sat out the England game, might Portugal have won the World Cup?

We will never know, unless the now depleted Portuguese go on to win it. That’s what irrevocably tainted means.

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It’s not only the media that are disillusioned about the refereeing. No less a figure than World Cup-winning player and coach Franz Beckenbauer, head of the Germany 2006 Organizing Committee, has criticized the officiating.

So has Ivory Coast Coach Henri Michel, who coached France to the semifinals in 1986. So has U.S. Coach Bruce Arena. So, Sunday night, did Portugal Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to its 2002 triumph.

“FIFA is always talking about fair play,” Scolari said. “We have seen that there was no fair play today.”

And Blatter’s flip response to Sunday’s debacle?

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“There could have been a yellow card for the referee,” he said.

No, Mr. Blatter, it is you who should be showing Ivanov and his ilk a red card before this farce goes on any longer.

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Seeing red

A record 23 red cards have been shown in the World Cup. Teams with red cards:

Croatia...2

Czech Republic...2

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Netherlands...2

Portugal...2

Serbia-Montenegro...2

United States...2

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Angola...1

Australia...1

Italy...1

Ivory Coast...1

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Mexico...1

Poland...1

Sweden...1

Togo...1

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Trinidad and Tobago...1

Tunisia...1

Ukraine...1


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