Koman Coulibaly, refereeing and the electronic scrum over ‘truth’

Editor’s note: The following contains explicit racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic language that is necessary, in our view, to convey the story completely. Offensive content is confined to the long light-blue text block.

Mexican writer Juan Villoro in the short story "El balón y la cabeza" (The Ball and the Head) says "the job of kicking footballs is plagued with evil." This is not the FIFA view. But the game, even in South African highveld at World Cup time, spawns ugliness.

In 2006, attending a match at Upton Park, the home ground of West Ham United in London’s East End, I heard one of the Irons faithful direct monkey-like grunts—or something like that—toward Premiership referee Uriah Rennie. I learned later that Rennie, nearly 10 years earlier, had become the first black man to officiate a top-flight match in English football. The grunting made hairs on my neck stand up. For several moments, in fact, I denied that I was hearing it. In my naïveté I did not want to acknowledge that racism in the terraces was real, and that I stood in the middle. For my complicit silence, not only in the provocation but in the chortles that followed, I still feel like a less than fully realized person.

Stewards pretended they did not hear. But I behaved no better.

Following the 2–2 Group C draw between the United States and Slovenia on Jun 18 I realize that the Greek chorus of Twitter and texts and cloistered screen jockeys also wounds, and with the same immediacy. Cloaked by pseudonyms, citizen media become mass media, lost, to steal a phrase from Hebe de Bonafini, in a “haze of dollars and soccer goals.”

Hatred was even directed toward Slovenia in the post-game effluent of jittery thumbs, a partial indictment of English-language press that, failing to take its cue from a polyglot host country, fears approaching non-English-speaking opponents to ask who they are and what they think.


From the Miami Herald and stablemates in the McClatchy media chain, we read that Malian referee Koman Coulibaly’s whistle that preceded a potential winning US goal in the 86th minute is “unforgivable.” Alexi Lalas calls the decision a “disgrace,” a theologically freighted term that, judging by ESPN’s studio sheen, has lost its medieval roots. Eric Wynalda hints at corruption.

Even more curious is viewers’ immediate appeal to an arbiter higher than FIFA—from whom Coulibaly can anticipate a stern performance review and the end of his World Cup assignment. (See the excellent Global Voices summary of Malian reaction.) This arbiter is Wikipedia, the last refuge of the epistemological slacker.

I was not aware that this went on—that a war over Wikipedia language takes place in source code, in tiny fonts. Legions paying homage to their screens, like the cubicle-bound Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, have mastered a range of arcane symbols and shorthand in order to vie in real time for their version of history. Smith would rewrite government statements of years past to accord with present policy. In the new scrum over truth, seconds count.

The first Wikipedia slur against Coulibaly comes, from an anonymous user, within minutes of the whistle denying Maurice Edu’s goal. Manufacturing encyclopedic consensus even before the match is over, the redactor adds to Coulibaly’s preexisting “stub” entry: “Well known for arbitrarily ruling out a legitimate goal for the US against Slovenia.” The writer casts himself five years into the future, hoping to be the one to define the Coulibaly legacy.

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