Howard Webb flies home to his family, insults ringing in his ears
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Tuesday 13 July 2010
Two years ago Howard Webb became the most hated man in Poland. This morning he will return to his home in Rotherham having added Holland to his list of no-go nations, following his record-breaking performance as the referee in Sunday's fractious World Cup final.
Mr Webb, who oversaw Spain's victory in an exceptionally ill-tempered match in Johannesburg, sent off one Dutchman and showed 14 yellow cards to acquire international sporting notoriety in the space of two fraught hours.
The final was watched by an estimated global television audience of 750 million people and it was Mr Webb's performance that made the biggest impact. The friendly but firm 38-year-old was even jeered by sections of the 85,000-strong crowd in Soccer City stadium when he was awarded his post-match medal.
In 2008 he awarded a penalty against Poland at the European Championships that resulted in their exit from the tournament and led to the country's Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, saying he "wanted to kill" him. Mr Webb received death threats judged serious enough to lead South Yorkshire police to post a guard on his home.
This time the force has no plans to provide any protection, but there has been no shortage of verbal scorn directed his way from Holland and even Spain – the complaints from both perhaps being a sign that he did something right.
One Dutch newspaper described him as a "chump", while his performance was labelled "outrageous" by Marca, Spain's leading sport's newspaper. The Holland players were notably aggrieved, although few could find fault with his decisions against the Dutch – if anything he was reckoned to have been too lenient. A succession of Holland players could have been sent off and probably would have been were it not the World Cup final, as tackle after tackle sent Spaniards tumbling around the pitch, before defender John Heitinga was dismissed in extra time.
Wesley Sneijder, one of Holland's star names, said of Webb: "He has robbed us. This really is a disgrace to football." Dirk Kuyt, who plays for Liverpool in the Premier League where Mr Webb officiates domestically, said: "I know you cannot blame others, but the referee favoured Spain."
But Mr Webb was defended by neutrals and colleagues, who pointed to the brutal Dutch approach to the final. Paul Gallagher, a former Premier League referee, said: "He will never ever, if he lives to be 100, referee a tougher match. I've never seen a referee put under so much pressure. I've never seen a team employ such bully-boy tactics and the way they harangued him at the end was disgraceful. He's been tested to the absolute limit. It's a long, long time since I've seen a referee put under so much pressure. He was in a totally non-win situation."
Sepp Blatter, Fifa's chief executive, blamed the behaviour of the players and said that the officials (the linesmen, Darren Cann from Norfolk and Devon's Mike Mullarkey, were also English) had a "really hard task".
Mr Webb, the first Englishman to take charge of the sport's biggest event since 1974, is on a five-year sabbatical from his job as a police sergeant and is paid around £65,000 per year. He met with Fifa officials in Johannesburg yesterday for the customary debriefing and was expected to fly back to the UK overnight.
On the plane home, he can find comfort in the words of one supporter. His wife, Kay Webb, said last week that "he can't take charge of his own children, I don't know how he manages it on a football pitch." But yesterday she insisted: "I have every confidence in him."
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