The country of Mali is located on the knob-like panhandle of Africa, with nearly 13.8 million people calling the landlocked nation their home.
Slightly smaller than twice the size of Texas, and predominantly Muslim-based, Mali has been described as “mostly flat to rolling northern plains that are covered by sand, with savanna in the South, and rugged hills in the northeast portions.” You might have heard of well-known Malian treasures: The Great Mosque of Djenne and Timbuktu City.
Mali, in fact, is known as “The Jewel of West Africa’s Crown”.
And in the midst of this nation of 13,796,354 citizens — the soccer world finds themselves focused on a singular individual: Steve.
(Um, Steve? Who in the heck is Steve? Irwin? The Crocodile Hunter lives...!? He has been in Mali this entire time...!?)
No, but here’s an explanation on Steve The Malian: Remember in the opening heist of The Italian Job (not the one filmed before the end of ‘Nam, old folks) when Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland and the gang pulled off the masterful plan of stealing that safe filled with gold bullion?
And can you recall the effectiveness of the explosives in taking out the floor underneath the safe, and how the heist eventually went according to plan as the safe fell into the canal beneath the Venice building?
And what about Handsome Rob’s essential diversion — and how he lured away the police with the decoy boat and safe? Is it all starting to come back to you yet? Do you remember how the group met up later, surrounded by the gorgeous scenery of snow and mountains, all smiles and full of bubbling joy for the successful job their team had just pulled off?
And if you never saw the movie, just take my word for it — all of this stuff happens, although the film entails many more special effects, dramatic sequences and explosions (but this is not F. Gary Gary’s column, so I do not feel as though I owe you any of these aspects).
So you will have to take my word here when I tell you Edward Norton — right in the middle of the group’s shining moment there in the mountains — stole it all away.
Norton would go on to kill the group’s leader (Sutherland) and attempt to kill the rest of the gang, taking all of the gold in the process. Everything that the group had worked so hard to achieve throughout the entire opening scenes, the main purpose of their mission, was taken away in an instance.
Edward Norton’s character’s name in The Italian Job? Steve...just Steve.
- - - -
The real-life “Steve" hails from “The Jewel of West Africa’s Crown”. Here are the known facts, just picture them being typed out on a movie theater screen like a 1990s mob flick:
Known Location: Johannesburg, South Africa
Common Aliases: Koman Coulibaly; Timbuktu Donaghy
Known Occupation: World Cup Referee
Our rediscovered, Malian referee “Steve” enters our collective sports conscience during the World Cup match between the United State and Slovenia — on a robbery that will never be forgotten in U.S. soccer history, regardless of if the outcome of this tournament’s group stage. This robbery did not entail a backstabbing at gunpoint, but rather a shattering of hopes with the shrill of a whistle.
The surreal play has ran before my eyes on the DVR dozens of times in the past 12 hours, to the point of near-blood-shot eyes and a notion of greater disbelief with every touch of the ‘Play’ button.
...Michael Bradley gets bear-hugged while heading for the front post. Foul on Slovenia. Plenty of jostling between Jozy Altidore and his defender. No foul on either player, but if anything, a penalty on Slovenian player for wrapping him up. Carlos Bocanegra (whom you might recognize as the co-star with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd in High Crimes ) is thrown to the ground in a headlock. Foul on Slovenia. A perfect ball slotted in by Landon Donovan. No offsides, not even close. The only player not directly involved in being fouled in the box, Maurice Edu, connects beautifully on a volley to tuck the ball in the top left corner. USA leads 3-2 in an improbable comeback. Sheer exuberance spills out of the Americans for the briefest of moments...
Then came the late whistle, the mass confusion.
The one aspect of this sequence that never came (other than any woman who has ever slept with Timbuktu Donaghy. Sorry, it was necessary) was an explanation. It never surfaced.
I learned a long time ago that life is tough; and though it is unnecessary to get a helmet, people need to at least learn to deal with adversity when it is thrown at them. So the United States’ goal was called back...tough luck. The call was made and there is nothing that complaining, petitioning, or a mildly irrelevant column referencing a movie that was a decent excuse to drool over Charlize Theron will change in that regard.
But I also learned to either stand behind your decisions or own up to your mistakes in life, and here is where the problem with “Steve” truly arises.
When Jim Joyce made one of the most controversial calls in the past 10 years of sports, if not in the history of baseball, his response was far from “No comment”.
Joyce owned up to a mistake that he knew robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game, even stating, “No I did not get the call correct...I just missed the damn call. I really thought I got the call right...at that particular time I thought he beat the play. It’s probably the most important call of my career and I missed it.”
Now, that is how a man handles an officiating miscue.
We are human, we get it — people make mistakes.
But the worst-possible response for an individual to give the media after they have messed up is “no comment”. “No comment” creates an assumption of guilt in the public eye. “No comment” signifies to the public (not always justifiably) that either the person is hiding something, does not know how to explain their mistake, or that they essentially are a coward. Either defend your call or admit to your error, it’s as easy as that.
(Note: I thought about nicknaming Koman Coulibaly, No Kommant, but thought it was too corny. Just a thought I plan on sharing in the footnotes if this site ever makes it into a book published for bored patients at nursing homes waiting for their Jell-O to be served. Check out the name tag .)
And yet, the Malian “Steve" and FIFA elected to respond to the press and U.S. squad with that guilt-ridden comeback. Koman Coulibaly might as well wear a sign on his back: Kick Me Because I Know I Messed Up But I Am Too Cowardly To Admit It. The sign should be complimented by an illustration of the lion from the Wizard of Oz blowing on a yellow whistle.
Just when all was right in the world of American soccer, when the most improbable of tasks had been accomplished, Steve stole that moment of euphoria. Steve stole the gold once again (2 points). Steve stole the show that belonged to a well-deserved, winning squad.
And for each and every sports journalist or critic that claimed that Coulibaly can not be blamed for the loss, simply due to the Yanks poor performance in the first half, there is a fact of soccer you should understand: The Game Of Soccer Is 90-Plus Minutes Long.
Consider this: A jury not convicting someone clearly guilty of murdering an 80-year-old man, simply because in the first 40 years of the victim’s life he was a degenerate gambler and a detriment to society. The first half of the victim’s life, he was unorganized and unimpressive. The first half of his life, the victim fell behind 2-0.
So let the murderer go free, the victim did not earn the right to continue living in the tournament called Real Life. Would journalists be alright with that similar scenario? I should hope not.
So what if the U.S. fell behind by two goals and looked unorganized in the first half — they overcame the deficit with some outstanding halftime adjustments. But their well-earned win was taken away from them by Koman Coulibaly, never to be replaced or accounted for.
In the movie, Wahlberg and his friends discover a shot at redemption, a chance to right the wrongs done to their team. Landon Donovan and his teammates will have an equal opportunity against Algeria on June 23 — one to erase the stresses of a match that forever be tainted in World Cup lore. History will remember a match that will be considered stolen in the minds and hearts of American fans.
It was stolen just when the light on U.S. soccer could not shine any brighter.
It was stolen by “The Blemish of West Africa’s Crown”.
It was stolen by Steve...just Steve.
It was stolen in an episode that will forever be known as: The I-Malian Job .
(This article was originally published on the sports website, Walking Into The Kicker .)