From an article on SSRN titled “Football Most Foul” by William Birdthistle:
Scenes of simulation and outrage are relatively absent from American playing fields less because U.S. sports boast omniscient officials with greater acuity than soccer referees, or because there are no bad calls in America, but because the consequences of any official error are much less harmful. Except in relatively rare circumstances, American referees simply do not wield the power to work a game’s bouleversement with one blow of the whistle. Certainly, it is almost unheard of in the United States for a referee to be able to decimate (in the original sense) one team’s playing strength or to award another team the game’s only score. In soccer, however, a referee’s red card is regularly the most critical development in a match, and a penalty frequently leads to the game’s only goal. Last year’s champions, Italy, will readily attest to this principle. Indeed, so important is the power and personality of a referee that in Italy, media listings for domestic soccer fixtures routinely include – along with the teams, the date, and the venue – the official’s name.
The World Cup comprises more nations than either the Olympics or the United Nations. It is therefore a rare, truly global event. Every four years, billions of fans follow the tournament hoping to enjoy the apotheosis of soccer, played by its finest artisans for the highest stakes. Instead, with pressure and finality so palpable in every game, players frequently compete with more calculation and defensiveness than they do in their wildly popular domestic leagues. The current set of referees’ rewards and punishments only exacerbates the incentives to play in this cynical style. The abiding image of the tournament now is less one of spectacular goals or surpassing sportsmanship and more one of melodramatic chicanery. But if the referees’ tools can be adjusted and their roles thereby relegated, we might look forward to future World Cups in which the beautiful game, rather than the soap opera, plays center forward.