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June 28, 2010

I'm so angry I could break glass

Jones By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- I haven't been this angry after a sporting event in my life. Everything's wrong. Everybody's been robbed.

Germany beat England here Sunday, 4-1. It was a historic display of skill; a clean, hard game; the latest edition in a classic rivalry that I've waited my whole life to see in the flesh. And now I want to join the thousands of fans roaming the streets of hard-luck Bloemfontein looking for a shop window to break.

Let's take this one yard at a time.

Germany had opened up England like elevator doors, taking an early, well-deserved 2-0 lead. Then England scored in the 37th minute to narrow the gap to 2-1. It had all the makings of a frantic, beautiful, crazy game. And then, improbably, even impossibly, England marched down the field again, and Frank Lampard rattled a shot off the crossbar, down and into the net, the ball hitting the grass a full yard behind the line.

2-2! Magic!

Except, no, Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda -- joining Malian Koman Coulibaly and Spaniard Alberto Undiano among this tournament's league of extraordinarily incompetent gentlemen -- ruled no goal. His useless assistant stood on the sideline, blinking stupidly as if someone had shined a light into his eyes, and Lampard could only put his hands on his head.

Play on.

It was, by any measure, a flat-out sporting travesty. I was sitting in the upper tier of the stadium here, and I could see that it was a goal even before the sickening replay was shown over and over again. How a referee and his assistant didn't see it I'll never understand. German keeper Manuel Neuer picked up the ball and ran out with it, and the look on his face gave everything away. He couldn't believe Larrionda wasn't pointing to half, one of the great games in recent World Cup memory about to resume all knotted up. Instead, it was now doomed. It would never be what it might have been.

"The game probably would be different after the goal," English coach Fabio Capello said afterward. "From the bench, I see the ball go into the net. I don't understand the mistake."

And so, it turns out, the English weren't the only ones who were robbed. Germany went on to score two more goals, the products of a ridiculously precise display of passing. One of the youngest teams here in South Africa, the Germans played with speed, grace, heart, cunning, intelligence. They took to the field under enormous pressure and played like the team to beat. They were beautiful to watch.

Hey, but how about that goal that wasn't?

As recently as March, FIFA, backed by the Welsh and Northern Irish football associations -- no conspiracy there, England, oh England -- declared that there would be no more experiments with goal-line technology, no more talk of instant replay. FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a statement, "The application of modern technologies can be very costly, and therefore not applicable on a global level. … The game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world."

He added, idiotically: "It is often the case that, even after slow-motion replay, 10 different experts will have 10 different opinions on what the decision should have been. Fans love to debate any given incident in a game. It is part of the human nature of our sport."

It's true that soccer succeeds in part because of its universality: that no matter where it is played, it is a simple game, a game that at its most basic can be played with two nets, a ball and a flat, open space.

But does that mean that the game at its very highest level -- here, at the World Cup, the tournament that's played only every four years, that saw 204 teams attempt to qualify for it, that captures the world's imagination like no other athletic competition -- can't be played with a couple of additional trinkets? Baseball adds extra umpires for its playoffs because it wants to get it right; that doesn't change the joy of a Little League game.

Blatter paints a terrible picture of the beautiful game destroyed, its purity tainted, its flow stopped repeatedly over every close call and decision.

How about we just make sure that balls that go in the net are called goals, and balls that don't aren't?

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's debacle, England's 4-2 World Cup triumph over West Germany in 1966 was instantly recalled. The validity of England's go-ahead goal in that game, a Geoff Hurst strike off the crossbar that landed in the vicinity of the goal line, has been the subject of heated debate for 44 years. The comparison, of course, falls apart right about there. No one will debate whether Lampard's shot was in. Blatter's 10 mythical experts would all agree: That was a goal, and it was robbery that it wasn't.

There's no way around it. There's no hiding it. It's there, and it will always be there.

It will be there for Capello to use to try to save his job; his porous defense, especially a woeful John Terry and David James, will use it to distract from their poor performances; the English media will use it to escape their having to give Germany full credit for its domination.

That's why I'm looking to smash some glass tonight.

In a game with five goals, it will be the one that wasn't that will forever loom the largest. The right team won, but people will always believe it did for the wrong reasons. The stain from today will remain for days, for weeks, for 44 more years.

And a game that I wanted to remember forever I won't be able to forget.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.