37,847 pairs of eyes at Navi Mumbai's DY Patil stadium saw Cheick Oumar Doucoure score arguably the 'goal' of the 2017 U-17 World Cup in the semi-final against Spain on Wednesday. The one pair that mattered though - those of line referee Toru Sagara - did not.
The Malian midfielder had no business taking the shot. His side were 2-0 down and seemingly out of ideas at the hour mark. Doucoure was some thirty yards away from Spanish keeper Alvaro Fernandes. Yet when he whiplashed his right foot on the ball, it seemed destined to head towards goal. Fernandes corkscrewed himself in a dive a fraction of a second after the ball cracked into the crossbar. It bounced once behind the last Spanish body flailing in midair before spinning back onto the field.
'Play on' signaled referee Ryuji Sato even as the Mali dugout erupted in furious angst. When the replay was played on the two giant screens in the stadium, the crowd knew why. The ball had fallen over the line before inexplicably making its way out again. It was surely a matter of centimetres but all of the ball had crossed over. The moment played itself a few more times, including once, rather painfully for the distraught Malians, in slow motion.
The decision could not be reversed. Goal-line technology isn't new and video assistant referees have corrected decisions at the U-20 World Cup. In India, though, the human element is all that mattered. And it likely got it wrong. Doucoure's audacious strike was cruelly to blame for what happened. Sagara was by his side -- right where the action was -- when he decided to hit out. There was simply no way he could be in a position to make an accurate call.
After the match, Mali coach Jonas Komla was tight-lipped. "I cannot say anything about the referee. That is how it is. That is football," he said. He had clearly spoken a lot more in the seconds after the incident. Joined by the rest of his teammates, he waved his arms around protesting at whoever he could. For what it was worth, referee Sato listened for what he felt was an appropriate amount of time before eventually showing a yellow card to Komla for his trouble.
Komla would spend much of the remaining half an hour sulking at the injustice of it all in a corner of the team bench. His belief in the self-correcting attributes of the game would likely have been further weakened ten minutes later when Spain made it 3-0. It's unlikely the solidarity of the crowd - the biggest seen in Mumbai for the World Cup alternately booed Sagara and chanted "Mali! Mali!" - made up for the slight. Mali might have become the wronged good guys for the stadium at that point but coach Komla would have exchanged that for a win any time.
Mali eventually got a goal back in the 74th minute through Lassana N'diaye but the moment to turn the momentum around had passed. They had come back from two goals to nothing down in their World Cup opener on the same ground but a three-goal handicap was too much to make up for, especially with their minds surely chafing at the goal that wasn't.
Could it all have been different? Komla surely thought so. "If we had got a goal then, we would have had the confidence. It would have given us luck. We would have time to score," he said.
And while Spanish coach Denia Santiago disagreed, it was probably a matter of courtesy towards a fellow professional, and the fact that the entire stadium's mind had been made up by that point, that dictated his response to the whole incident. "I can understand how he feels," Santiago said after the game. Having benefitted not through some act of deception by his side but through the misfortune of a rival, he felt it would be better to bury the whole unsavoury incident.
"I think we shouldn't have live replays in football matches," was his assessment of the goal that wasn't. "It's best not to influence the referee or people towards the referee," he said.