The first game of the 2010 World Cup between host South Africa and Mexico Friday in Soccer City presented an immediate talking point midway through the first half when Carlos Vela appeared to have scored off a corner kick after being left unmarked at the back post. The linesman's flag immediately went up, waving off the goal.
ESPN analyst Efan Ekoku was stunned, like most viewers, why El Tri's apparent opener was denied.
Twitter reaction was swift, wondering if NBA commish David Stern was somehow involved, trying to put in the fix for the home nation, which has always advanced out of the Group Stages of the World Cup.
Heck, more than a few people probably had visions of Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce dancing through their heads.
When everyone took a breath, it turned out the refs got the call correct.
In short, the offside rule reads as follows:
"A player is in an offside position if: he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent."
Since South Africa keeper Itumeleng Khune charged off his line, trying to push away Gerardo Torrado's corner, it left only Steven Pienaar left on the line. That meant when Khune went forward, Vela was in an offside position, regardless of the Everton man's position on the line. Just think of Pienaar becoming the de facto goalie on the play.
Even then, it was a pretty tough call considering the speed of the play.
Watch for yourself.
The refs appear to have gotten it right.
Where the problem probably lies is that ESPN play-by-play man Martin Tyler or Ekoku addressed the audience, telling them the correct interpretation of the rule. The shame here is that both are excellent announcers, mainly working English Premier League telecasts that are beamed around the globe.
Ekoku should have known better that one man on the line doesn't prevent an offside call instead of insisting the ref must have seen a foul somewhere in front of the goal before Vela's touch.
Considering ESPN pumped so much money into promoting the World Cup, it's a good bet a lot of casual or new soccer fans were watching. They were likely wondering why an apparent clear goal was waved off.
If the play-by-play team fails to address it, so be it.
The play happened fast in real time. From their pregame open, Tyler and Ekoku were pretty far away from the field, and considering the vuvuzela noise it was probably hard to keep their thoughts straight with its constant buzzing. There's no stoppages in soccer, either, so they didn't have time to go back and rewatch during a break in the action.
Everyone is entitled to a "brain fart" in the heat of the moment.
There's really no excuse, though, why ESPN glossed over the play at halftime. While the network shouldn't have to "dumb it down" for the American public, an explanation of a rule that causes even the most diehard fans trouble wouldn't have hurt. There weren't a ton of other talking points for Chris Fowler and analysts Shaun Bartlett and Steve McManaman
Otherwise, the first day of actual game coverage by ESPN was first-rate. Hiring a slew of respected voices, led by the peerless Tyler, combined with a beautiful HD picture is heaven for a stateside soccer fan.
An occasional explanation of the rules, especially in such a high-profile game, wouldn't have hurt. Fortunately in the ensuing "Sportscenter" ESPN showed clearly what indeed the rule was. Too bad it was about an hour and a half after the fact.