American tourists traveling to the World Cup this month received warnings from the U.S. State Department about street crime, but no amount of precautions prepared them or the U.S. team for what they perceived as a robbery in plain view on the Ellis Park field Friday evening.
Landon Donovan had just launched a free kick to Maurice Edu, who poked through traffic and kicked what appeared to be the game-winning goal against Slovenia in the 85th minute, making the score 3-2, and capping an improbable comeback from a two-goal halftime deficit. U.S. players began celebrating, as did the pro-U.S. crowd of 45,583 and fans in bars and living rooms across America.
But just as the ball hit the net, the whistle sounded. Referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali, working his first World Cup, nullified the goal for an unspecified foul. Hours after the game, nobody in the U.S. camp knew who was fouled or for what. The official FIFA play-by-play says Edu committed the foul, but replays show Edu had no contact with anyone and it was Slovenian players who had their arms wrapped around Michael Bradley, Carlos Bocanegra and Jozy Altidore. It is possible a U.S. player grabbed a Slovenian player in the scrum, but no explanation was offered.
Despite the controversy, the U.S. stayed alive with the 2-2 tie, and will automatically advance with a win over Algeria on Wednesday. Donovan scored the first goal for the U.S. -- an emphatic blast into the roof of the net -- in the 48th minute, and Bradley gave his father, U.S. coach Bob Bradley, an early Father's Day present with the equalizer in the 82nd minute. Had they won, they'd be leading the group and virtually assured of a second-round berth.
"I feel gutted, to be honest," Donovan said in a television interview as he left the field. "They [the officials] stole a goal from us. It was a good finish and a good goal. It was the guy's [Coulibaly's] first World Cup and maybe he got caught up a bit in the moment. This is the World Cup and you can't just take away a goal from a team like that."
The U.S. players, equally stunned and outraged by the call, surrounded the referee demanding an explanation. Altidore had to be pulled away from the scene by Hercules Gomez, and U.S. assistant Jesse Marsch put his hand over Michael Bradley's mouth to prevent him from saying something he might regret later.
Donovan later explained that he and a few other players approached Coulibaly "in a non-confrontational manner" asking exactly what the call was but got no answer. "I'm assuming it was a foul somewhere, but we asked the ref many times who the foul was and he wouldn't explain it. I'm not sure how much English he spoke, but he just ignored us or didn't understand."
Coach Bradley, stoic and pensive as always, said he has learned over the years to accept referee's calls, whether he agrees with them or not.
"It's rare that when a tough call is made that a referee at that moment will give you an answer," Bradley said. "Sometimes after the fact you might get an answer. But that's not always the case, either. When you're involved in the game long enough, there are moments where you are frustrated, when you feel that situations have not been handled correctly or fairly. But that's the way the game works. So you move on."
That the U.S. was in position to win the match was remarkable, considering the team played so woefully the first 45 minutes. Slovenia had two shots on goal the first half and scored on both. On the first, Valter Birsa sneaked behind the U.S. defense, and cranked a shot from 28 yards out past a flat-footed U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who admitted he "lost sight of the ball" for a split second when he was screened by defender Oguchi Onyewu.
The U.S. nearly tied when Clint Dempsey found Donovan in the box, but a Slovenian defender cleared the ball at the line just as Donovan was about to tap it in. Slovenia counterattacked after that play, and Zlatan Ljubijankic put it in from close range to make it 2-0.
The temperature was dropping, the sun was setting, and the U.S. World Cup dreams were slipping away as Slovenia, the smallest nation in the tournament, was outplaying the biggest nation entering intermission.
But in the U.S. locker room, the mood remained hopeful. Several players stood up to speak, and the message was simple.
"We talked about how it was time to show our character, how the World Cup only comes around once every four years, and if we were going to go down, were going to go down swinging," said U.S. defender Jay DeMerit. "We were sure a lot of people back home had written us off, so it came down to the 11 guys on the field, and our collective team. It took a lot of guts to do what we did."
Donovan added: "My guess is there's not many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did, and arguably won the game. "That is what the American spirit is about, and I'm sure people back home are proud of that."
The United States automatically advances with a victory over Algeria on Wednesday. The Americans could also move on if they tie and England loses to Slovenia, or if both matches end in ties and the U.S. maintains its goal-scoring edge over England. After England's scoreless tie against Algeria Friday, the U.S. has scored three goals, and England has scored one.