There is good refereeing, there is just plain refereeing, there is bad refereeing -- and then there is Howard Webb. The Englishman, much favored it seems by the UEFA and FIFA powers that be, was in action again yesterday, in the Dynamo Kiev vs. Barcelona game.
His performance was a disgrace. The last television image of the game was of Lionel Messi hobbling off the field, supported on each side by a member of the Barcelona squad. For that sorry sight, Webb can claim a good deal of the responsibility.
The official UEFA stats of the game record Messi as having been on the receiving end of 6 fouls -- twice as many as anyone else in the game. And these were all, as I recall, nasty fouls -- violent trips, late slides into Messi's ankles -- that sort of thing. But Webb seems to find these fouls unexceptional. Yes, he calls them -- but he does not give the cards that they warrant -- that they should have.
For a player to be badly fouled six times in a game is rare. In itself, it warrants action from the referee. I have been told -- by leading referee authorities in this country and in England -- that there is a way that referees can punish a team that is deliberately targeting an opponent -- and that is surely what Dynamo was doing.
The referee, I am told, can use the rule against "persistent" fouling in these cases -- even if it is a different player who fouls each time, the referee can decide when enough is enough and yellow card the next offender, whoever it may be. Something Webb should have done much earlier than the 88th minute when he cautioned Andriy Shevchenko for a violent foul on Messi.
In other words, the tool for the referee to impose justice on a systematically fouling team is waiting to be used. Webb refused to use it -- so he allowed Messi to be badly fouled at least six times. There were other fouls on Messi that Webb chose not to call -- such as Betao's violent push in the 58th minute that sent Messi sprawling.
I mention that, because a similar push by Barca's Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Leandro Almeida did earn Ibrahimovic a card. Which makes it look as though Webb was deliberately refraining from protecting Messi. That couldn't be, could it? Surely no referee would behave like that -- especially when we're talking about the world's No. 1 player - would he?
I would like to think not. But there is some history here. Earlier this year, in last season's Champions League, Webb refereed the Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich quarterfinal. For starters, Webb yellow-carded Messi for diving -- an atrocious call, one for which Webb really ought to have issued a public apology. After branding him a cheat, Webb then saw Messi -- right in front of him -- get viciously elbowed in the face by Mark van Bommel. Webb, correctly, allowed play to continue as Barcelona quickly scored a goal. But he never got round to red-carding Van Bommel.
This attitude of Webb's toward Messi - which I shall charitably describe as non-protective - was very much in evidence in yesterday's game. The bad fouls on Messi came from Taras Mikhalik, Magrao, Betao (twice) and Almeida -- three of which could quite easily have been judged worthy of a caution. But Webb waited until the 88th minute foul by Shevchenko to issue a yellow. And even that did not stop the violence -- in added time, there was still time for yet another bad Dynamo foul on Messi -- this one by Almeida. This was the one that sent Messi limping off the field -- Webb tootled away on his trusty whistle, but kept his cards in his pocket. I should point out that Almeida was already carrying a yellow.
In my last column, in hailing the election of Messi as the world's best player, I mentioned that we could get maybe another 10 years of his brilliance -- provided he was not seriously injured by violent play.
And now, just three days later, comes ominous proof that the danger I talked of is alive and well. In that previous column, I pointedly mentioned coaches who allow their players to go onto the field and commit dangerous fouls. What I did not do, and should have done, was to warn against complacent refereeing -- of the sort that Howard Webb practices. It seems likely to me that Webb's see-no-evil approach to violent tackling comes from his basic refereeing experience, which is in England.
There is another worrying aspect to Webb's style. In that Barcelona vs. Bayern game, Webb handed out four yellow cards -- three of them in the second half (the sole first-half caution was, of course, Messi's alleged dive). In yesterday's game, Webb issued seven yellow cards. One came right at the end of the first half, the other six were in the second half, four of them coming in the final 13 minutes of the game.
There was ample opportunity to use the yellow in the first half for rough tackling. But Webb gave only a yellow to Gerard Pique -- for a hand ball in the 45th minute. In the second half, Webb finally brought out the yellow cards. Evidently, Webb prefers to issue his cautions late in the game. Which is, it must be pointed out, a way of delaying, or avoiding, the possibility of having to give a second yellow to a player. It is also an invitation for the violence to continue, which it did -- and of which Messi was the ultimate victim.
The further bad news is that we shall no doubt see the egregious Webb in action during the World Cup. The good news -- I hope -- is that the organizers could not possibly be so stupid as to assign him to an Argentina game. Could they?