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- It Seems To Me. . .-

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Injuries have trashed conventional wisdom on Cup Group E.

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Arena still doesn't get the respect he deserves.

It Seems To Me . . .

Referees might have been harsh, but U.S. was not cheated against Italy.

By Robert Wagman

MUNICH, Germany (Monday, June 19, 2006) -- My e-mail in-box is filled with outraged messages from fans, all arguing that the United States was cheated out of a victory in its World Cup match against Italy Saturday in Kaiserslautern. I don't agree.

There were five calls that potentially changed the course and outcome of the match. The first was obvious -- Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi's blatant elbowing of U.S. striker Brian McBride in the face as both jumped for a header in the 28th minute.

Italy coach Marcello Lippi said that De Rossi made "a serious mistake, but that's something we'll deal with in-house. I don't want to discuss it in public. He will be suspended and we'll pay the price."

World governing body FIFA's disciplinary committee will review the play and will almost certainly hand down a multiple-game suspension to De Rossi.

The second call was the red card issued to U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni for his ill-timed, two-footed, studs-up tackle on Italian Andrea Pirlo. After the match, Mastroeni said the challenge would rate only a yellow card "anywhere in the world."

Actually, he was wrong on several levels. To start, Mastroeni and Pirlo were both lucky that Pirlo was not badly injured. The kind of all-ankle tackle could have been a threatened Pirlo's career. Admittedly, it was not done with any apparent malicious intent, but the result could well have been catastrophic. Thankfully, for both players involved, it was not.

The referees at the World Cup have been instructed in the sternest way possible to be very harsh on some kinds of fouls. One is the use of elbows when going for head balls. So Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda (who by profession is a parrot breeder) showed red to De Rossi even before the extent of McBride's injury became clear.

Another foul the referees have been ordered to clamp down on are "cynical" fouls on attacking players - fouls such as Mastroeni's two-footed tackle. He did not even come close to getting ball; it was an all-ankles tackle. So for Mastroeni to say it was only worth a yellow anywhere does not take into consideration what the referees' marching orders are here. That tackle was not a yellow in this Cup here.

Two other calls that altered the course of the match were the two yellow cards that cumulatively led to U.S. defender Eddie Pope being sent off. One could argue that both fouls warranted warnings, rather than cards. The contention could also be made that, considering Pope already had a yellow, his 47th-minute challenge on Alberto Gilardino, resulting in the American being ejected, did not merit a card because he got the ball first before creating contact with Gilardino.

It seemed to me that Larrionda was not aware that Pope was already on a yellow because after he showed the card, he turned away and it was the Italian players who seemed to tell him it was Pope's second caution. So, Pope's expulsion can, I think, be called controversial.

There was nothing controversial about disallowing midfielder DaMarcus Beasley's goal, a tally that would have put the shorthanded U.S. ahead 2-1 in the 65th minute. It was absolutely clear that Brian McBride was standing in an off-side position and obstructing goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon from seeing the shot. The argument that McBride was passively offside does not have merit since the shot went through him with McBride lifting his left foot to allow the ball to go through.

The referees in this competition are under the closest of scrutiny by FIFA to insure they are following their instructions. Referees, and assistants, are graded after every match and their assignment for future matches depends on their grades.

Through tonight, with 32 of the tournament's 64 matches completed, referees had handed out 168 yellow cards and 10 reds in 24 matches. Each nation has played two games and 11 players had been cautioned in both, leading them to be suspended for the final match for group play.

FIFA communications director Markus Siegler said this number is in line with past World Cups. "If you count the number of red and yellow cards," he said. "It's in proportion."

The numbers don't support Siegler's statement. With the World Cup half over, referees have handed out an average of 5.25 yellow cards per match, an increase over the 4.25 per game when 272 cautions were issued in the 2002 Cup, an increase of 23.5 percent. The amount of yellow cards has increased in every tournament since 1982 and has increased 114.2 percent since then when 98 yellows were handed out in a tournament that included 24 teams and 40 games.

Ten red cards have been given in 32 games in this event compared to 17 four years ago, on pace for a 21.8 percent increase.

U.S. manager Bruce Arena believes the referees have gone too far. "Entering this World Cup, I think there was a real theme that they were going to be very harsh on players, and I think they have," he said. "The cards are excessive, I believe. It's just too much in all the games. It's taking good players out of games. Fouls are being punished too harshly, without warnings. A foul sometimes is just a foul, it's not a yellow card. I think it's just gotten excessive in the World Cup."

While this argument is offered by a coach who will have to face Ghana in a must-win situation without key players in Pope and Mastroeni, he is not the only manager dealing with personnel issues because of cards. Ghana will have to manage without both of its goal scorers from its surprising 2-0 decision over the Czech Republic Saturday -- Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari, who both will sit because of yellow-card accumulation after being cautioned against the Czechs.

And the legendary career of France Zinedine Zidane might end with a suspension for yellow-card accumulation, getting booked yesterday after bumping into a South Korean, a seemingly innocuous foul committed as he retreated to play defense. France will be heavily favored to defeat Togo Friday, but if it doesn't the 1998 Cup champion will be out and Zidane will head into retirement.

While the role of the game officials is being hotly debated throughout this Cup the referees shouldn't be blamed for doing as they were told. What happened to the U.S. Saturday might have been harsh, but the team was not cheated.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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