Ref Howard Webb lets Messi take a beating

By Paul Gardner

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?


6 comments about "Ref Howard Webb lets Messi take a beating".
  1. David Hardt, December 10, 2009 at 4:29 p.m.

    It is the beautiful game until it is allowed to get out of control usually by the officials. Look at the US division 1 Men's soccer and most of the time it is a rugby match masquerading as a soccer game. Why well partly it is the way the game is called. I have heard "well I can't call every foul, the game would never move on". Well guess what, the players will adjust and if not, one team will run out of players due to red cards and the message will be sent. Instead we have a brutal game that moves on.

  2. Austin Gomez, December 10, 2009 at 6:04 p.m.

    Players must be "sent-off" for the "Good-of-the-Game" for mainly 1 Reason: the SAFETY-Factor!, since these Players do NOT 'deserve' to play in this very enjoyable/ positively exciting/great sportsmanship/true technical-tactial qualities from which Spectators come to be 'entertained' because of this Game's BEAUTY alone! --- the True ESSENCE of Mundial Futbol! But when Players earn their Red-Card-Misconduct punishment, then they must always & unequivocally be dismissed!

    PROTECT the 22 Players from One Another" is the First Commandment for all Soccer Referees!.........SAFETY being its Number 1 Component/Priority!
    With 'Safety' enhanced, Players will be able to display their "magical" qualities/skills, wherein the Spectators come to see!

    Thus, the Second Commandment for all Soccer Referees......ENFORCE the
    Laws of SAFETY, which are inherent in each & every one of the 18 Laws of the Games (Enforcement being the 'Talking To'/Whistle/Card components)!

    And overall, this is superbly done & well-managed by the US Referees!

    Just in case, there is a "perception" that some Referees do not like to give or reluctant to issue 2nd Yellows or straight Reds, (which I myself have not evidenced) because of a Team now having to play MINUS one Player.

    Since this is the ONLY Sport (Soccer), that does NOT allow a Team to re-enter via a Substitute after a dismissal of that Team's Player (No Substitution whatsoever), a Comment would be that after a "dismissal" of a Player, that Team may be allowed to substitute another Player (usually, of lesser quality), wherein 'Justice' is served by an instant "send-off," this Referee decision without any 'subconcious' worrying about or doubting oneself, concerning a Send-Off decision! Only a Suggestion!

    Something to think about for FIFA in the next decade of great FUTBOL, to re-think perhaps in their Board Decisions, "For-the-Good-of-the-Game"!

    Naturally there are PROs and CONs to this idea!

  3. Kevin Leahy, December 10, 2009 at 6:44 p.m.

    What happened to Michel Platini' s attempt to get FIFA to crack down on this rubbish. I have walked away from watching games due to all the jersey pulling. When my son was in high school, I said something to him about him having his hands all over his opponent. His response was, that they never call it. It is up to the referee to set the tone because the players and coaches won't. Soccer can still be a very physical game without all the violence. It cheapens the sport! It needs to start @ the top and that is FIFA.

  4. Kent James, December 11, 2009 at 2:11 a.m.

    To me, there is a very big difference between a player who is attempting a legal challenge and commits a foul and one whose purpose is to foul. A player as good as Messi, will, by the nature of his skill, be fouled more frequently than most, because his deception and speed will make defenders miss, and some of the time they will foul him because of their misjudgments. Such incidents are fouls, but should not be cards. But any attempts to "take Messi out of his game" through physical intimidation or strategic fouling must be dealt with by using cards, the very first time it happens. I've never understood the belief that some referees seem to have that it can be "too early" to give a card, or that the first cardable instance warrants a verbal warning instead of a card. Those are the very instances in which a referee should be telling the players (by using a card) that such behavior will not be tolerated.
    Gardner is absolutely right that referees do not use enough cards, and the fear of "changing the game" by ejecting a player is a valid one (and might be a good reason to reassess the effectiveness of making a team play short after a player is ejected, since the harshness of the punishment may actually deter its use). High level amateur and college play is even worse than the EPL, with constant shirt tugging and grabbing, which makes the game ugly. The scary part is that EPL referees use cards much more frequently than most referees in America. I used to referee college games and actually received an e-mail (as did everyone in our chapter) from a Division I college assignor that said we were giving too many cards, and that we needed to learn to "manage the game" without them. It was mind boggling to me that he could say such a thing, since he never witnessed any of the games (he's in a different region and just responds to coaches complaints). While all the blame for behavior outside the rules should not be placed on the referees, the refs are in the best position to do something about it. But when they do, they should get the support of all those who believe the game should be a beautiful game, rather than the survival of the fittest.

  5. Jonny Sinclair, December 11, 2009 at 7 p.m.

    First things first, I love Messi. He is a genius who plays the game as it should be played. As (correctly) mentioned above, he will get fouled more than most, simply because of his dribbling ability and that he is thinking quicker than others, but I certainly do not think we should be asking refs to hand out more cards because of this. The whole idea of awarding the free kick is supposed to be advantage enough.

    The game is turning soft. Yellow cards are handed out for nothing nowadays and I actually applaud those refs who try to keep their cards in their pockets. Soccer is a physical game! Being quickly ruined by divers and players rolling around in 'agony' after the slightest touch (in an attempt to have opponents booked and sent off) - these are the players we should be focusing on when it comes to punishment. It's abolutely disgusting!

    I admit that some of the fouls were nasty in nature, but Messi's actual injury came about from him going over on his ankle as he rode a tackle - not from impact from an opponent.

    Let's give the refs a break and let's do something about those divers and fakers who are giving the game such a horrible name - I dread to think what the players from the 70's and 80's think of the new soccer.

  6. Marc Satterly, December 12, 2009 at 7:47 a.m.

    Three important men are at fault in this situation leading up to Lionel Messi's injury. First, and most importantly, Howard Webb. He had on opportunity to set the tone inside the first 30 seconds when Dynamo Kiev had a player taken down as he was about to enter the Barcelona penalty area. It denied a very dangerous attacking opportunity. It was from behind. It was reckless and cynical. It fit every description for bookable offence. Only a foul was given. So the parameters were set and Webb did not deviate, allowing several other reckless challenges to go unpunished. The next man responsible for Messi's injury is manager Josep Guardiola. With a substitute available, and their progress to the knockout stages virtually assured, Guardiola failed to protect Messi even though he could clearly see that the referee was not going to, not to mention the backlog of matches and travel upcoming for the FIFA Club Championship. Your prized possession should be better protected. The third guilty party is the unfortunate Lionel Messi. When no one else is protecting you, protect yourself. Keep it simple. Don't take on the entire defense when the result is decided. You have a professional responsibility to yourself and maintaining your best physical condition.

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