Jurgen Klinsmann makes questionable call on Algerian referee before Belgium-U.S. showdown

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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SALVADOR, BrazilU.S. Soccer has cast its entire lot behind the idea that coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows what he is doing when it comes to advancing in the World Cup.

On Monday, that belief was tested as the coach made potentially his most reckless move yet, and one that had sure better not backfire.

Klinsmann used his press conference on the eve of the Belgium-U.S. game here to suggest the national ties of Algerian referee Djamel Haimoudi could play an adverse role in how the knockout-round game is officiated against the Americans.

Referee Djamel Haimoudi speaks to Mark Bresciano of Australia. (Getty Images)
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Referee Djamel Haimoudi speaks to Mark Bresciano of Australia. (Getty Images)

Klinsmann was asked whether he was concerned that Haimoudi is able to speak French, as many Belgian players can.

Klinsmann did not dismiss it as a minor detail or an unnecessary distraction, as he often does with weather, travel or other concerns outside anyone's control or almost anything that runs counter to his typical self-empowerment message.

Instead, he doubled down on Haimoudi … all while passive-aggressively praising his work, of course.

"Well, we always have a concern," Klinsmann said. "We know he did two games already thus far and he did them very well. So we wish he continues his refereeing [the] perfect way he's done so far."

Off to a polite start, Klinsmann started throwing elbows.

"Is that a good feeling?" he continued. "No. Because he's coming from the same group as Belgium and Algeria."

Belgium and Algeria both advanced out of Group H of this World Cup. To suggest a possible pro-Belgian slant for an Algerian ref is a massive reach. Is there such a thing as group pride when the draw is random? Would an American ref feel a fondness for Germany because of the Group of Death?

Belgium and Algeria play in different federations – Europe and Africa, respectively – and have virtually nothing in common geographically, politically or culturally.

Haimoudi, who has worked at the elite international level since 2004, has officiated two World Cup games thus far, Australia vs. Netherlands and Costa Rica vs. England. According to WorldReferee.com, he's never called a game involving Belgium or the U.S.

This point was bizarre. And Klinsmann wasn't done.

"He's able to speak French with their players on the field, not with us," the coach said.

This is certainly an advantage for the Belgians but it doesn't seem to be a prohibitive one.

"The referee is not there to talk," Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said, dismissing the issue. "He is there to referee."

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What exactly should FIFA do? Punish refs fluent in numerous languages? And what do you do with a country such as Belgium, where three languages are officially spoken and English is common? How many elite refs are there who don't speak English, French, Flemmish/Dutch or German? Maybe U.S. training should include foreign language study. And why plant a potential negative in your own players' minds?

Then Klinsmann tossed his biggest bomb of all. He suggested that lingering resentment over the U.S.'s 1-0 victory over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup (best known for Landon Donovan's late goal) could be a factor.

"It's the country that we beat in the last second in the last World Cup," Klinsmann said.

You could say this was a trick out of the ever-successful Phil Jackson's playbook for managing NBA referees by putting them on notice, but this was even more extreme.

This was a direct suggestion that Haimoudi's national ties are so strong that a four-year-old result could override his professionalism and judgment on Tuesday. It was a complete frontal attack on a guy who is otherwise doing a great job.

It also carries little logic. Belgium, after all, defeated Algeria 2-1 in this very World Cup, less than two weeks ago.

If Haimoudi is of such weak character that the pain of seeing his home nation lose will cause him to try to exact revenge by either purposely or subconsciously calling an unfair game, then this is either a push or an advantage for the Americans considering the Belgian wound is fresher.

Of course, Klinsmann wrapped it all up by noting he understood the challenges and expressed his confidence in the situation.

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"Sometimes I know [for FIFA] it's difficult to choose the right referees for the right games and it's always been tricky for FIFA, but it is what it is," Klinsmann said. "We give it absolutely the benefit of the doubt; we will respect the decision and be spot-on in the game and hope everything goes well."

If he respected the decision and is giving the benefit of the doubt, then why bring up Haimoudi's nationality and a four-year-old result in the first place? Why risk upsetting a referee who very well may have had no previous grudge?

Klinsmann is known as a master motivator. He is bold and unapologetic. It's one of the reasons, U.S. Soccer believes, that the team carries itself with such confidence. He doesn't just say things.

He knows exactly what he is doing and he certainly understands what it takes to advance in the cutthroat knockout stages of the World Cup. He was a player on the champion 1990 West German team and coach of the 2006 third-place German club.

He certainly knows that he isn't going to be second-guessed inside the U.S. program.

"I think Jurgen said everything he needs to be said," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who also serves on FIFA's executive committee, when asked about the comments.

Does that mean you agree with the concerns over potential bias or you have nothing to add?

"I never disagree with Jurgen," Gulati said. "Not publicly."

Well, quite publicly the American coach called out the Algerian referee and his professional ethics.

"If we start going into this now," said Wilmots, the Belgium coach, "it is looking for excuses ahead of the match."

It sure seemed that way.

All eyes are on Djamel Haimoudi now. And Jurgen Klinsmann, too.

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