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Refereeing, CONCACAF, and Why It's Time To Live With It

I've made the joke before: it's that time of year when Toronto FC loses to minnows from Central America. They'd only ever lost to one minnow from Central America, of course, when Puerto Rico pipped them in qualifying for the group stages of last year's CONCACAF Champions League. But good jokes are unjust, sometimes.

The hard truth for guys like me who love to hate Toronto is that, when they're in the CONCACAF Champions League, they are playing for Canada. The better Toronto (or Montreal, or someday Edmonton) does, the better the chances CONCACAF gives us a full spot rather than a half spot and gets rid of that devilish elimination game. The better Canadian soccer looks on the world stage, the more interest we draw as a legitimate soccer power both from outside and within our borders. These are all good things, and as much as the bile surges to my throat at the thought of a Toronto FC victory they're things we Westerners should want to see happen.

But the reaction to last night's 1-0 loss in the Champions League to nobodies Arabe Unido of Panama is not only getting a bit over the top (as always!), it's entirely missing a lesson Canadian soccer has missed too many times.

I'm going to be honest. I didn't see the game. Did not watch a millisecond of it. Unfortunately I was at work the whole time. But I've seen quite a few games in my time, both in CONCACAF and in the Champions League. When the Toronto FC fans I know say that the Panamanians dived until even the sniper had run out of bullets and that their red cards to Nick LaBrocca and Fuad Ibrahim were the completely undeserved rewards for a squad of flagrant simulators, I believe them. Seriously. There's no anti-Toronto bias here. Even Jason deVos, a man who knows a thing or two about CONCACAF officiating, called it "one of the worst refereeing performances I have ever seen". This was pretty clear-cut.

I fully expect that minnows Arabe Unido, in front of fewer fans than I've had for some of my soccer games, dove and time-wasted their way to victory. I also think this is disgraceful. Contrary to some opinions, simulation is not "part of the game", or at least not part of the game as the rules declare it, as it is played at most levels in most of the world, and as anybody with even an iota of respect for the beauty of soccer would declare it "ought" to be played.

But where I depart is people blaming this awful show of refereeing for Toronto's defeat, or using it as a reason for Toronto FC, Canada, and Major League Soccer to withdraw from CONCACAF competition or fail to take it seriously. "If they're going to treat us like this, we should treat them the same way."

I've been there, in the cooling-off period after a rough loss when the referee certainly didn't help our cause. But all the same I'm astonished I have to make this point to a chorus of Canadian soccer fans. We've been known to overanalyze the refereeing, searching for any signs of crookedness. A Mexican is refereeing when we play Honduras? Mexico and Honduras are rivals, surely the calls will favour us because CONCACAF refs are all scumbags! And of course they don't, because the referee and the opponent both come from countries where simulation is rewarded rather than punished, so the referee quite naturally calls the game as he's used to and the opposing players play the game like they're used to and we walk away frothing with mindless rage.

Moreover, Toronto put themselves into this position: not a position where the refereeing was doomed to be bad, but a position where there was no margin for error. They started their third-string goalkeeper. They started a player from Toronto FC Academy. The goat on Arabe Unido's only goal, Gabe Gala, is not a regular starter. Probably their best and certainly their most experienced striker, Mista, stayed on the bench even when Toronto was starving for a goal. There was enough inexperience and question marks that Toronto, if everything went right, would probably beat a team they were markedly inferior to. Who the hell was Preki to think that everything would go right?

This is not a Benito Archundia situation. Toronto did not have any goals called back and Arabe Unido earned theirs. Toronto was already losing 1-0 when LaBrocca was sent off; the red cards impeded their comeback rather than causing their loss. This isn't a case of extraordinary corruption or match fixing. Quite the contrary, this is a script that has played itself out dozens of times over the last several years. Not merely that the Latin American team dives to the approval of the Latin American ref, but that the Canadian team is left completely bewildered by what's going on. More than one observer has quipped that if you're going to get whistled for fouls that never happened you may as well make them happen: Toronto's got some pretty physical players and to quote Mark Watson "they don't run so fast when they're lying on the ground". Or use their superior skill to increase the tempo rather than allowing your opponents to dictate the pace of the game and make it easier for them to dive at their leisure.

This is what I mean by learning a lesson, and why I'm writing about this beyond simply "lol TFC". This sort of thing has been going on longer than I've been alive. The bulk of CONCACAF isn't going to change the very fabric of their soccer culture just because it makes me sad. I'm not going to say that we have to learn to play their style because we can't change our culture any more readily: I'm going to say that we have to learn from what they do and how to exploit it. We have to stop bitching about the times when a dive draws a foul and start capitalizing on the times when a dive doesn't draw a foul and all of a sudden one of their defenders is laying on the turf holding his head instead of getting involved in the play. If the whistle is being blown a bit too freely we have to see the situation and start discouraging the opponents from their antics with a bit of rough treatment instead of sulking and saying that it just isn't fair.

This is all easier said than done, of course. But twenty-four years after Canada qualified for the World Cup and ten years after any senior Canadian men's team has made the final of any continental tournament, I think we've had time to find a way.

The Whitecaps are going to win a Voyageurs Cup one of these days and be in the same position. Let's hope they were paying attention.