By Paul Gardner
Six weeks after the event, we now get referee Howard Webb's explanation of why he did not red-card the Netherlands' Nigel de Jong in the World Cup final.
An explanation that is factually sound, that makes a lot of sense ... but is not entirely satisfactory.
Webb admits that he should have shown de Jong a red card for his high kick into Xabi Alonso’s chest. But, he says, his view of the incident (he was behind Alonso) was such that, although he knew it was a high foot he could not see clearly exactly where de Jong’s foot had landed, or how forcefully, or “how bad it was.”
I’ve looked at the replays, and completely concur -- he was not in a good position to see the actual impact. That was just one of those things -- no blame attaches to Webb.
But when Webb says that the “decision not to red-card him [de Jong] was not based on me not wanting to send someone off in the World Cup final, it was based on the viewing angle I had,” he is surely shading the truth. In fact, he himself admits that he was applying special standards for this one game: “Being a World Cup final, I wasn’t prepared to make a guess. It’s the pinnacle of a player’s career.”
I imagine that most referees would be enforcing more stringent standards in such a game, it was just unfortunate that Webb’s insistence on being super-correct resulted in him getting a crucial call wrong.
Webb also dealt with a particularly irritating claim made by the Dutch, who went berserk claiming that Webb erred late in the game in denying them a corner kick, and instead giving a goal kick to Spain. He did get it wrong, and he has admitted it. The Dutch reasoning after that borders on the imbecilic, claiming that the winning goal “followed” that error. It did -- but nearly a minute later, and that minute contained a 25-second spell during which the Dutch controlled the ball. As Webb put it, “So how far back do you go?”
Not only did Webb give insights into his own actions, he also had some comments on the behavior of the players. He felt, in the difficult circumstances, he might get some help in calming things down from players he knew from the English Premier League -- he mentions Fernando Torres, Robin Van Persie, and Dirk Kuyt -- but “the assistance was not as forthcoming as I’d hoped for.” In fact, Kuyt later claimed that Webb was “slightly more for them than for us ... that ultimately cost us the Cup.” That, after de Jong had got away with his midfield kung-fu display, is a bit much.
My sympathy for Webb is tempered by what sounds like inexcusable naivete on his part -- “I sensed in the tunnel how much both teams wanted to win it, having not won the World Cup before. I sensed the tension.” And he seems surprised that, even with Torres, Van Persie and Kuyt “the sole desire was to win.” What can he have been expecting?
For the first time that I can recall, we have a World Cup final referee speaking out, fairly promptly and fairly straightforwardly, on controversial incidents from the game. This is progress. We don’t usually hear a word from World Cup referees.
Silence has been the preferred referee policy for as long as I can recall. The official policy, in fact. Not that long ago, in the early 1970s, this was the wording of a FIFA memorandum to referees: "It is not the duty of the referee nor is it a useful function to explain his decisions to the players or spectators. Any attempt to do so can lead to confusion, uncertainty and delay."
Extraordinary. Of course we’ve moved on, but we’re still not where we should be with referees and their viewpoint. Mostly, I feel, because the referees, as a group, do not have a voice. We are told, ad infinitum, by Sepp Blatter that the sport would be wrecked if video replays were allowed -- but we don’t know what the referees think about the matter. That is a form of secrecy that is imposed on referees by the threatening power of FIFA. But another form of secrecy comes from the referees themselves. They still, after over 150 years, have not developed a system of signals to let everyone know what offense they’re calling when they blow their whistle.
Evidently FIFA and the referees are afraid of too much light being cast on refereeing activities. When Mexico was victimized in South Africa by an awful non-call from an Italian assistant referee that allowed Carlos Tevez to score for Argentina, FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot announced sternly: “A clear mistake. This will be corrected. We will work on this.” He was not talking about the refereeing error -- that was ignored. What had upset FIFA was the fact that the television replays -- clearly showing the gaffe -- had appeared on the big screens in the stadium where everyone could see them. Shameful!