Official Bias?: CONCACAF and the USMNT


We have had a great deal of discussion this week about officials’ bias in CONCACAF towards Mexico. However, I was a bit disappointed that many American fans see the US as a victim in all this. The truth be told, the US benefits from much of the same bias, albeit perhaps from different parts within CONCACAF.

A key distinction must be made between American and Mexican players. It is the unsporting, cheating nature of simulation that bothers me about Mexico. But the same arguments, which I made about economic considerations and ethnic officials within CONCACAF benefiting Mexico can be as easily made and applied to the US.

I was surprised by all the whining American fans and even some journalists engaged in after the defeat at Azteca in August about fouls and yellow cards. Watching every Mexico qualifying game the last three cycles, the fouls committed by Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra typically result in sending offs at Azteca, had they say, been Honduran, Canadian or Guatemalan. So while officials do favor Mexico, they do not treat the US the same way as other opponents at Azteca.

In the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the USA received a penalty kick in four straight matches. Additionally, a Panamanian player was sent off somewhat frivolously in the quarterfinals, a late Canadian goal disallowed because the official appeared to not understand the offside rule and its non-applicability to back passes (The match would have been drawn level with the US down a man) and a tangle which should have been a non call resulted in PK in the final versus Mexico, when the USA was trailing 1-0.


So while the US had a “successful” 2009 Confederations Cup, perhaps the missing storyline is why Mexico or Canada was not representing the region instead of the US. For whatever reason, this fortunate succession of strange calls has been quickly forgotten by American fans and writers.


In the first game of the semifinal round of qualifying, the match official, Courtney Campbell of Jamaica missed an obvious hand ball in the area on Heath Pearce, and later sent off a Guatemalan player. He also did not award Carlos Ruiz a pk when he was taken down in the box, perhaps because of Ruiz’s reputation for diving or perhaps for other reasons. (in fairness, Ruiz dives a great deal, but the take down  by Carlos Bocanegra was a foul.)


Throughout 2009, many questionable calls, 50-50 in nature seemed to go the way of the Americans. Who can forget the take down of Cornell Glen last month in the box in Port of Spain that wasn’t even called a foul?


Often time’s American fans complain about some sort of bias against US players in competitive international matches outside the region. For example, three American players were sent off in the first four games of the Confederations Cup, and at least one other was quite fortunate not to be sent off. (in that case, with Brazil up 3-0 and up a man, the match official simply gave Benny Feilhaber a yellow for what would normally be a red card offense.) We saw the same sort of lack of composure and discipline at World Cup 2006 and at the recently completed Under 20 World Cup.


Why do Americans show such a lack of discipline outside of CONCACAF? A simple explanation is the lenient treatment American players get within the Confederation.


It’s simple and fair to point the finger at Mexico for El Tri’s shameless diving and simulation. While it is no fault of the US players that they get favorable treatment within the region, it is unquestionably apparent to the supporters of other national teams (Mexico aside) who have seen the incidents I detail above and many more played out in front of their eyes.


Part of the difficulty Mexico and the US have in big internationals is that they are so used to being judged one way in CONCACAF, that when the World Cup roles around and FIFA mandates are actually enforced, both struggle. Obviously, Mexico has overall been more successful than the US at the World Cup level (with the obvious exception of 2002) but El Tri also has not fulfilled its vast potential. Bottom line: it would benefit both the US and Mexico in the long term, if CONCACAF began to remove the officials bias from situations and enforced FIFA’s mandates a little more strictly.

17 thoughts on “Official Bias?: CONCACAF and the USMNT”

  1. Kartik,

    I may sound crazy here and your article above does have some merit, but I would like you to now explain why the US has qualified for the 2nd round of every world cup (except 1950, but still beat England) when the cup is not held in Europe. I think European teams have a distinct advantage when playing in Europe and I tend to think referees give them a biased advantage as well. That same advantage is definitely not there when Euro teams have to go to S Korea/Japan and now S. Africa next summer. I predict a very wide open cup next year and believe Brazil will end up winning but I do expect some surprises in the quarterfinals just like 2002. Also just a quick trivia question for you, how many Euro teams have won the world cup outside of Europe? None

    I do agree that the US and Mexico enjoy an advantage in Concacaf, however they are cleary the most talented teams in this part of the world and the cream usually rises to the top, for whatever reason. Although I believe the Honduran team right now is a very close #3 and I hope they represent Concacaf very well next year. Thanks

  2. It has been said for a long tim that CONCACAF (and MLS refs) need serious help when compared to Europe and elsewhere. Your article makes a good point that it not only hurts the product on the field but also the teams when we go play outside the region.

  3. I agree Kartik. If CONCACAF wanted to make the region perform better, they’d try to get rid of the phantom penalties and enforce the laws of the game with a little more stringency when the US and Mexico play (or less stringency when anyone else plays, you pick). Sadly, CONCACAF doesn’t seem to get it that the US and Mexico are both unprepared to play on the international stage because they get babied. If Canada got the same treatment from officials that Mexico did, we’d qualify for every world cup.

  4. Maybe Mexico and the US simply aren’t that good, and don’t have any “vast potential”. CONCACAF is just a weak group and being on top of that group with the help of officiating and homefield advantage is far different from playing the best countries in the world on a neutral field, where FIFA’s rules are actually enforced.

    “If Canada got the same treatment from officials that Mexico did, we’d qualify for every world cup. ”

    That’s a big of an exaggeration. You could probably spot Canada a free goal in every match and they’d still not qualify.

    1. You’re right, because the officials would spot one back.

      Ask Kartik how many phantom penalties and goals are called back on Canada when they’re against the US or Mexico. WC qualification against Honduras, phantom penalty. Gold Cup v Honduras, same thing. Goal scored on the US in the 2007 Gold Cup, called back…

      and we can go on all day…

      I would go so far as to argue the Canadian starting eleven is better than the American starting 11. Depth issues plague Canada, yes.

    2. And I highly doubt you’ve watched Canada play enough to be able to judge their talent. Scorelines don’t tell the whole story.

  5. Kartik The match official at Guatemala was not Courtney Campbell of Jamaica. It was Enrico Wijngaarde of Suriname. Checked FIFA Website

  6. “but I would like you to now explain why the US has qualified for the 2nd round of every world cup (except 1950, but still beat England) when the cup is not held in Europe.”

    Because one was in 1930, with like 12 teams. 1950…..well we know about that and The other was held in the US. Haha. 2002 was the only good performance……because we scored goals…..although frings got away with a handball.

    anyway, where are all the comments now…….the mexico one has 158..this one..6.

  7. Kartik,
    That’s an interesting conspiracy theory. There is a museum here that has room to display it on the 6th floor. :) So, it guess by this theory, the biggest problem in CONCACAF is the officiating. And to that end, the biggest problem with the officiating itself is not having to conducta game full dives and handballs, but the refs are given a directive behind closed doors to make sure the US and Mexico advance at all costs. Entertaining.

  8. I somewhat agree with your analysis Kartik, and I’ve seen us get some crazy calls, but I’m not sure the U.S. and Mexico are comparable. If our guys ever start whining and diving like a certain team, or our fans start throwing rocks at buses and pulling fire alarms, or our coaches start kicking players, or if our federation whines every other game about the official to get a more easily intimidated person in… well my second team Poland will become my first team. We get favorable calls, true, but I don’t EXPECT or DEMAND that we get them, and I’m embarrassed when it happens.

    One thing I disagree with is the assumption Concacaf refs make our nats play undisciplined somehow, when in reality when you watch youth and pro games in America you’ll see where it comes from. Ricardo Clark, for example, didn’t learn to tackle stupidly from his nats duty, he’s been allowed to get away with it by OUR federation. Discipline isn’t learned or forgotten for a few weeks national team duty each year, and our players don’t need that excuse. They need to be taught discipline, and also the difference between hard effort and stupid thuggery, at an early age so that by the time they get to the USMNT its instinctual.

    The main complaint I have is when we play teams from Europe, the games aren’t called evenly either. I understand that Clark had a red card in the Confed Cup. Where was the red card for the Italian who threw Jozy over his back? It was more dangerous than Clark’s stupid stupid stupid half challenge. So you see, we get the opposite treatment so the big teams advance when we play in tournaments against bigger teams than us.

  9. Sorry I hit submit by mistake. My point was these tournaments are all about money and as much as I hate to admit it, FIFA and the various federations have zero credibility. When it comes down to it, $ over fair play, and until something changes it will always be that way. I love the beautiful game, but I’m a realist not a cultist.

  10. ur points r on da mark, but after ur rant against mexico based on culture and racism, simply claiming mistake by refs or bias is to blame is not fair. americans do the same cheating thing u accuse mexicans of. altidore in particular is a diver. how did he draw that pk vs italy? yes blanco is a disgrace with diving but he is ten times the player of altidore and i agree r fans do not like the argentine player or coach that come to mexico, but usa is the same. those in glass houses should not throw stones. maybe some of ur defenders typical yanks should read this.

    u have not made up for that post but show u are at least still thinking a little.

  11. Well, I had written a lengthy response. But it got spammed. I guess cause it was too long.
    So I’ll summarize. Mexico’s and the US’s federations do pull their weight. Neither team gets much help by refs, unless on home field advantage. The CONCACAF refs are terrible and need to be better prepared to not buckle under the pressures of officiating an important match. Until this changes there is not much hope. Why do refs do so well in most European countries? Because they get paid. Plenty. And you have to prove your worth. And yet that still won’t eliminate human mistake. Shit happens.
    I dsagree on Kartik’s assessment of Mexico’s inability to win the World Cup matches that count. Its not due to officiating, its due to quality. It hasn’t been there. Better players means you don’t have to rely only on calls going your way.
    Mexican clubs and El Tri have plenty of experience playing in unfavorable circumstances. See the numerous times they have failed to win the Libertadores. WHy? CONMBEOL would rather have cheating than see a CONCACAF team win in their competitions. Simple as that. See River vs Santos Laguna ‘May 04; America vs Sao Caetano; Cruz Azul vs Boca. Horrible officiating. Mex fans know they have to prove their worth with soccer, i.e., Pachuca in the Sudamericana. Score more and play better so the officials can’t screw you.
    Kartik, only you and resentful US and Central American fans see El Tri as a team of divers. Why is it that when they play Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, etc, they don’t carry this moniker? I’ll tell you why. Cause their defenders don’t have to resort to cutting down skillfull players. They do at times use some over the top aggression (see Colloccini, ’05 Conf Cup, Heinze 06 WC) but since THEY are the bigger soccer powers, they won’t get called on it. So? What does this mean? MExico knows its not going into situations knowing its a favorite or being able to exert influence. It just has to win and play great. They know it. Its what has allowed them to beat Brazil in consecutive FIFA cups. Produced three stunning displays against Argentina (until they got clobbered in the last Copa America). 4-3 against Germany. IN Germany. 6-0 against Paraguay. 3-1 against Uruguay. When they are gunning on all cylinders they are a formidable opponent, even though they might lack some of the height, skill and technique of the greats. If this were not true they wouldn’t return consistently good results against the top teams in competitive matches. I know what you’re thinking. 2-0. 2002. OK, I do agree they didn’t respect the US that game. They didn’t. And they need to wake up to the fact that no team can be disrespected. Ever. But their players are getting better. The youth’s are doing well. So hopefully in time, the overall skill will be their to tip the balance. And some luck never hurts.

  12. Oh… one thing that could help the US would be to actually take CONMEBOL competitions seriously. Like Mexico has done for over 15 years. South Americans might still call Mexicans Indians, dirty servants, shit, ignorant, you name it, they say it. But these are the jerks. Your level headed soccer fan will admit that Mexican teams are vying to be the best. They will say Brazilian teams are on top, but Mexico can square off for 2nd with Argentine clubs anytime. After each competition (with the exception of the last Libertadores debaucle that almost saw the FMF pull the plug on this adventure as CONMEBOL cheated Chivas and San Luis out of their hard-earned berths in the round of 16 by using swine flu as an excuse, when dengue is at epidemic levels in Argentina and is as dangerous as the flu), Mexican clubs have gotten better and better at playing under unfavorable circumstances and in hostile stadiums (see Boca vs Chivas @ the Bombonera). Being in the top 3 in five out of seven showings at the Copa America testifies to this at the national level. Whatever you have to say, the facts speak for themselves.
    Its experience that’ll do it. And Mexico is getting it while the US treats these competitions like friendlies, only suited for their 2nd string. Your loss.
    For all those saying that Mexico can’t win on Neutral ground, you might be right. All the examples I have used have been on generally unfavorable terms. And they are still succeeding. Once the old prima donnas who used to think they can just waltz into Columbus and win are out of El Tri and replaced by the new breed, you might be singing a different tune. But this cuts both ways: if the US gets its act together and has its clubs in Libertadores; in the Sudamericana; and its national team seriously gunning for top spot in the Copa America, then their players will improve. And hopefully Costa Rica and others some day might too (although I hope Honduras don’t, as long as Costly, Pavon, Ruiz and others are still in the team, I want them to fail, and fail terribly)… if they get the invite.

  13. Kartik,
    I realize you are trying to be a “journalist” but your observations are off base. Look at the draw for the 2006 WC if Mexico had to face the three teams the U.S. drew they would have finished 25th. Unfortunately, the U.S. seems to get numerous tough draws, while it is hard to find Mexico get a tough draw. (maybe the current U-17 draw counts but I am not sure how good the Swiss are.) Also, only a handful of teams can get away with a bad draw and still do well in these FIFA events and the U.S. male teams need to avoid the tough draw to do well.
    The U.S. – Canada game in 2007 was a farce. Donovan got pushed by a Canadian deep in the Canadian zone no foul got called. The offside you talk about “WAS THE CORRECT CALL.” Derosario who the initial pass was directed to was offside, if Derosario was not offside then the goal would have “possibly happened”, the flag went up and whistle got blown before so called goal was scored. Onstad could have gotten a red card for his challenge on Donovan; afterall was not Onstad the last defender.
    The 2007 game against Panama featured a Panama hand ball that did not get called. The penalties awarded to the U.S. in the 2007 Gold Cup looked legitimate. In the 2009 Gold Cup two penalties that should have been awarded to the U.S. against Haiti did not get called by a Tico (Costa Rica) referee.
    A Cuban in Havana got away with a handball in the box. I recall earlier in the Trinidad and Tobago game in September the referee was shy about calling a penalty on a Trindad and Tobago player. Thus, maybe that referee is shy about calling penalties.
    A goal the U.S. could have might have scored against El Salvador in September got called back. The WCQ in Guatemala is mainly reputation because Guatemala simulates multitude more times than Mexico. The 2007 Gold Cup game against the U.S. involved numerous Guatemalan simulations that got a U.S. player a red card. Thus, maybe that 2007 game and numerous other circumstances, plus the poor lighting of the field by Guatemala came back to bite them.
    Rico Clark’s card against Italy was not right it should have been a yellow. But unfortunately Rico has a poor reputation and South American referees have a tendency to pull out the card way too many times. The referee for that match was from Chile and probably of Italian heritage, thus that match was not fairly called at all. That game should never had a referee of that heritage assigned to it.
    Basically, Mexico reigns supreme in CONCACAF due to money. Unfortunately, bribery is the way of the game and numerous countries practice it as a way of showing “hospitality.” In the U.S. it is called political contributions.
    The inconsistent referees in CONCACAF lead to numerous poorly called games which makes it tough for even the best teams. The Dynamo might have won against host Arabe Unido, Panama; but numerous cards got dealt by a supposedly “good” referee from Trinidad and Tobago. Fans of both teams wonder what would have happened had that referee not had such a poor game. I remember a U.S. 2009 U20 qualifier against El Salvador which had two red cards dealt by a Nicaraguan referee against the U.S. which look suspicious.
    Clearly, the referees in CONCACAF range from competent, to biased, to completely incompetent. The U.S. players need to learn at the junior levels how to play with certain referees. Scouting reports on referees need to be done by FIFA to give teams a more fair shot at each event.
    Here is a question to Kartik, Why does Costa Rica have so many more cards relative to the U.S. and other teams that made it to the final WCQ round? Costa Rica got what is regarded by many as the easiest semifinal round, with a tougher preliminary round. Also, how many cards on average got dealt during CONMEBOL qualifiers. I cannot believe what I saw on a quick glance of CONMEBOL WCQ cards for their rounds of qualifiers

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