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.

For almost two hours at least 21 users, shielded by their Wiki handles, pass judgment for posterity. Some interventions are heroic. Some, such as appeals to Wikipedia standards governing poor sourcing, bias and lack of context, are fruitless.

I tracked most entries, minute by minute, by referring to the master list of revisions and then followed links to individual user histories. To Wikipedia’s credit, the detective work is easy.

USA Today characterizes the Wikipedia vandalism as creativity. Read below, see what you think.

(All times GMT)

15:45 (anon) Adds: “Well known for arbitrarily ruling out a legitimate goal for the US against Slovenia.”

15:46 (anon) Deletes above

15:47 (anon) Adds: “He ruled a perfectly valid goal against the US as offside.”

15:48 (anon) Deletes above

15:48 (anon) Adds: “Scientifically proven worst referee of the century.”

15:49 (anon) Revises: “Scientifically proven worst referee of the century. The worst.

15:49 (anon) Revises existing text: “He has been an awful full international referee for FIFA since 1999. Medical records indicate his eyesight is 20/40 vision, yet he cannot afford spectacles. Although not confirmed, rumor has it he had to offer copious amounts of oral sex for this position.

15:49 (Mahanga) Deletes additions above

15:49 (Mahanga) Institutes Wikipedia vandalism protection

15:55 (JelloSheriffBob) Adds: “His officiating in the game between USA and Slovenia was roundly criticized by television commentators at the time.”

15:58 (PepsiMax181) Adds: “Speaking on the game, Chris Moyles said ‘I’ve just seen that disallowed goal for the US again – and not only was there no foul by a US player, there are probably two penalty-kick offences being committed by the Slovenian defenders. Shocking decision.’ ”

16:01 (Perspixx) Revises existing text: “Rapist|referee.” [Ed.: Word "rapist" does not appear in Wikipedia page display, perhaps an automated security feature. "Rapist" remains in page’s source code, however, until 16:56.]

16:01 (Redman1974) Adds: “Koman even gave out a yellow card to Robbie Findaly [sic] in the same game, after he was hit in the face with … the ball? Koman definetely [sic] stole the show in the US-Slovenia game.”

16:02 (Redman1974) Revises above to "Findlay [sic] (of the US)"

16:04 (Boozinf) Adds: “Coulibaly negated a late U.S. goal with an offsides [sic] call, which replays have shown to be inaccurate. The goal would have capped a US comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit to Slovenia; instead the game ended in a 2-2 tie.”

16:05 (Mtngorilla) Adds: “Coulibaly is rumoured to hate the United States of America with the burning passion of a white hot sun.”

16:07 (Boozinf) Adds: “Coulibaly’s exploits have drawn comparisons to such sporting pariahs as Jim Joyce, Don Denkinger, Tim Donaghy, and even BP CEO Tony Heyward [sic].”

16:08 (Hugo.arg) Raises Wikipedia POV query, adding annotation: "(easy, easy.. americans)"

16:09 (Ronnotel) Changes Wikipedia protection level based on "excessive violations of the biographies of living persons policy"

16:11 (Ronnotel) Removes quote from Chris Moyles, comparison of Coulibaly to "sporting pariahs" and comment about Robbie Findley with annotation: "unsourced"

16:12 (Ronnotel) Removes reference to Coulibaly negating goal for offside and to Coulibaly hating USA with annotation: "unsourced"

16:28 (Darwinek) Changes Wikipedia protection level based on "excessive vandalism

16:29 (Murderdan537) Deletes reference to Coulibaly’s work being "roundly criticized"

16:31 (Darwinek) Adds: "He was preselected as a refree [sic] for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He led the match between Slovenia national football team and the United States national football team." Adds link to FIFA’s list of prospective referees for the 2010 World Cup.

16:36 (Britwriter) Fixes typo "refree" to "referee." Adds: "Coulibaly is a blind clown who makes poor decisions during crucial World Cup matches. His name appears on the Slovenia government’s payroll."

16:38 (Sertel) Deletes above. Restores typo "refree."

16:41 (Britwriter) Restores "Coulibaly is a blind clown who makes poor decisions during crucial World Cup matches. His name appears on the Slovenia government’s payroll" to another section of the entry

16:42 (Excirial) Deletes above

16:42 (Perspixx) To "He led the match between Slovenia and the United States," adds "disallowing a potential game-winning goal by the US for reasons yet to be explained. The call has been widely criticized on television, radio and in newspapers and blogs."

16:44 (Dscarth) Deletes much of Coulibaly’s bio, including his refereeing history. Adds subheading, "Controversy," and adds underneath, "His final call came into question by the players and coach of the US World Cup team, after having disqualified their final goal with no reason given." Cites "Robbed at the World Cup! Late Goal Disallowed as U.S. Forced to Settle for 2-2 Draw with Slovenia" (New York Daily News).

16:45 (Marcut) To "He has been a full international referee for FIFA since 1999," adds "and is best known for ruining USA’s chances at making it past the first round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup."

16:46 (Ser Amantio de Nicolao) Deletes addition above

16:47 (Dscarth) Adds box showing final score of US-Slovenia match

16:48 (Dscarth) Adds Coulibaly’s name as referee to box

16:49 (Kingnavland) Adds subheading, "2010 FIFA World Cup" and adds underneath, "Coulibaly took charge of the Group C match between the United States and Slovenia. After conceding two first half goals, the United States fought back to equalize and had scored an apparent third goal to take the lead; however, Coulibaly disallowed the goal, drawing criticism from ESPN commentator (and former US national team player) Alexi Lalas, who described the call as ‘a disgrace’ and ‘ridiculous,’ adding, ‘It should have been a goal.’ ” Cites ESPN video, "Controversial Finish Leaves US with Draw."

16:52 (Dscarth) Rearranges material. Deletes New York Daily News reference.

16:52 (Dscarth) Adds minor changes to box showing Coulibaly as referee for the 2010 African Nations Cup final between Ghana and Egypt

16:54 (Dscarth) Adds location—Ellis Park, Johannesburg—to fact box about Slovenia match

16:58 (Excirial) Removes score boxes for 2010 World Cup and Cup of Nations

16:59 (Dscarth) Restores Cup of Nations score box

17:00 (Dscarth) Restores World Cup score box and some earlier material. Restores "Rapist" to "Rapist|referee" with the annotation, "meant to do this."

17:00 (Dscarth) Adds goal scorers for US-Slovenia match

17:02 (Kingnavland) Restores refereeing background, deletes "Rapist"

17:09 (Scott6123) In cross-reference section, adds: "Coulibaly is a motherfucking Jew who sucks cock on the weekends, and takes it up his asshole regularly."

17:09 (ClueBot) Deletes above

17:21 (Kingnavland) Adds: "Former US national team player and Yahoo! Sports analyst Eric Wynalda went a step farther, accusing Coulibaly of corruption and calling for an investigation." Cites Yahoo! article, "Did the US Lose a Win?"

17:26 (Poulsen) Adds: "American midfielder Landon Donovan also expressed his displeasure, stating, ‘I don’t know how they stole that last goal from us. I’m not sure what the call was. He (the referee) wouldn’t tell us what the call was.’ ” Restores New York Daily News as source.

Within 15 minutes of the game’s completion, Coulibaly is grouped among pariahs, like Dante’s clusters of the damned. These include Jim Joyce and Don Denkinger—baseball umpires who had the audacity to err, Denkinger in the 1985 World Series and Joyce as recently as Jun 2. Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, one out away from a perfect game, forced the 27th batter to ground out. But Joyce missed the call at first base. He later apologized. Reconciliation flowed. Tim Donaghy is a former National Basketball Association referee convicted of gambling on games. BP CEO Tony Hayward is, well, enough said.

Instantly, Coulibaly is scapegoated, labeled unclean, stoned by so-called experts. As with any referee, one can examine his record for previous controversy.

On a parallel Wikipedia discussion page, redactors debate with passion. Invective arrives here, too, starting at 15:44 GMT when an anonymous user writes, "This guy is an ass." Eight minutes later the comment is deleted, but curses keep coming, monkey references, death threats, allegations of corruption, invitations to Guantánamo. Thirty-seven minutes elapse before the thread is purged.

The incident supports Umberto Eco’s claim that sport is “ ‘chatter’ raised to the rank of tumor.” Eco writes more than 40 years ago, in the context of violence at Plaza of Tlatelolco. A recent academic investigation confirmed 44 deaths when Mexico’s police and military fired on thousands of student demonstrators 10 days before the Olympic Games. There may have been more dead; 10 victims, according to investigators, are still unidentified. Eco’s point is that, by design, we experience mass sport and the inevitable violence at a distance. The peril is that discourse replaces reality, to which, in an event such as the World Cup, journalists, stadium spectators and viewers have no direct access. Or we confuse sports talk with conversation about the city, ethics, ultimate ends, love. Sports chatter—“discourse on a discourse about watching others’ sport as discourse”—Eco describes as a “place of total ignorance.”

Was Coulibaly right or not? By asking the question I set myself as arbiter over the arbiter. The non-participant judges the actor, which is the modus operandi of the sports press. For observers and critics wishing to gain an electronic following, quick riposte is essential. Such has long been true in modern football. David Goldblatt in his history highlights the importance of the daily press in building football’s popularity. Papers around the globe rushed to be first with results and comment. Strangely tinted sports supplements, known in the UK as Pink ’Uns and Green ’Uns, slaked the supporter’s need for instant replay, before instant replay was invented.

Was Coulibaly right or not? The New York Times “Goal” blog publishes photos showing what any soccer fan of integrity will confess. It is a contact sport of shirt-tugging and clandestine embrace, morally ambiguous. Coulibaly blows his whistle before the goal. He decides. At the end, he stands tall with his comrades. I admire him. Do I need to say it more directly? Coulibaly in a fraction of a second negotiates a scrum of bodies with more courage than online arbitrators of fact manage over two hours. And U.S. players, once heads cool, speak reasonably—it’s a game, move on.

Was Coulibaly right or not? It is certainly the wrong question. Paul Richards, a University of London anthropologist, in a field study from Sierra Leone writes about the day he was asked to referee a village match. He begs off. His replacement is quickly embroiled in an offside controversy that threatens the entire game. The referee, accused of bias and incompetence, starts to leave. After long consultation, participants agree that “a game played at speed and with passion cannot be regulated without a referee. Better to abide by the referee’s rulings than for the game to be abandoned. Somebody mutters the proverb ‘bad osban beta pas empti os’ (a bad husband is better than an empty house). Order returns and the game is played out in a friendly spirit, resulting in a 1–1 draw.”

Later Richards listens to students on holiday parse red-card decisions from the 1994 World Cup. They discuss match referees at length. Watching a “global social order” constructed before his eyes, Richards realizes that match results are incidental. Raging in the background of the boys’ chat is a civil war that kills tens of thousands and displaces more than two million. Some of the boys’ friends already have been recruited, died, or play amputee football as the result of land mines.

The referee’s example—the precarious, impossible position of the fair arbiter—is more essential than one might think. Nine-year-old boys in an African jungle know that.


Umberto Eco, “Sports Chatter,” in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, trans. William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 159–65; Paul Richards, “Soccer and Violence in War-Torn Africa: Soccer and Social Rehabilitation in Sierra Leone,” in Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti, Explorations in Anthropology (Berg, 1997), 141–57.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (3)

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  1. Timotoe says:

    What’s the point of your article? Is it to insinuate that racist comments were made against the referee? Before you automatically assume that, why don’t you investigate the online BS about the referee that got the call against England wrong, or Mexico wrong. You can naturally pull out any conclusion on any subject you want by cherry-picking certain blog comments about someone or something.

    I watched the game, and my opinion of the ref was not based on his race or even on that one call that he missed. Throughout the game he had trouble managing the game. He was inconsistent in his calls and he seemed a little overwhelmed. Were there other examples of this in the tournament? Yes there were, but that does not mean that you should excuse his performance. He is expected to be one of the 20 or so best officials in the world. He certainly did not live up to that during the whole game. To excuse his performance is to patronize him.

  2. You ask fair questions. I suppose the point of the article is to preserve hate speech so that, in 10 or 20 or 30 years, we can remember what in the year 2010 was required to provoke invective against a person trying to do an impossible job in impossible circumstance. It’s noteworthy that in 2010 individuals turn to the online arbiter of truth (Wikipedia, amazingly) to advocate for their version of history before history has even happened.

    One interesting aspect of the anthropological snippet is that the boys in Sierra Leone debate the merits and demerits of match officials after time has passed. They are doing historical work. They know that judgments are conditioned by context and are much more generous in their appraisals than modern-day adults drunk on electronics.

  3. ????? says:

    I watched the game, and my opinion of the ref was not based on his race or even on that one call that he missed.

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