England are out of the World Cup. Or, to be more precise, the man who carried the hopes and dreams of referees throughout the land will be after lacing controversy and confusion through Australia's exhilarating advance to the final 16 here in Stuttgart last night.
It was a joyous night for Harry Kewell, who extinguished his own torment on the grand occasion by pilfering the equaliser that sent the Socceroos into a mouth-watering contest with Italy at the expense of Croatia, but will have been a sleepless one for Graham Poll, whose failure to disallow the Liverpool midfielder's precious goal for offside was the least of his misjudgements in a performance that will almost certainly represent his last in Germany.
The Tring official refused Australia two legitimate penalties and dismissed three players during an absorbing draw, all for receiving a second yellow card or, in the case of the Croatian defender Josip Simunic, a third. Poll refused to recognise that he had already booked the Melbourne-born Simunic when he clattered into the back of Kewell for another yellow card in the 87th minutes and it took until stoppage time, and a further bookable offence, before the centre-half eventually walked.
In his flimsy defence Croatia did not make life easy for England's premier referee, surrounding him and even shoving him as their discipline vanished along with their place in Kaiserslautern next Tuesday, but the world game's governing body, Fifa, will not be lenient. The man who had been groomed for the final will not find his schedule cluttered when the knock-out stage appointments are made.
"I asked the referee how many times he was going to book him but he said it was only his first," said an incredulous Mark Viduka; "But everyone makes mistakes." His generosity was shared by the Australia manager, Guus Hiddink, who gave Poll the credit for one of the most open and engaging games of the competition. "It was a high level, quick game and the referee let play go," Hiddink said. "He should be complimented for controlling the game and contributing to the spectacle."
Once again, however, he is the talking point, even on a night when Australia twice fell behind, twice confronted an early exit and recovered twice to send Australians from Fremantle to Fraser Island wild.
Today they will be raising a tinny to Kewell. Cup finals have not been kind to the frustrating talent, who holds the dubious distinction of limping out of Liverpool victories in Champions' League, FA Cup and Carling Cup showpieces, but he delivered in what was the Australian equivalent of being present in Berlin on 9 July. His 78th minute goal, converted at the back post after substitutes Marco Bresciano and John Aloisi combined to telling effect, transformed despair into triumph for supporters who have enriched this tournament. "The most important goal of my career," he admitted. "The Champions' League final [when he tore a groin muscle] was a personal nightmare for me but the team produced the greatest comeback in the history of the game. Tonight has allowed me to relive that dream."
Australia were behind in the second minute when, after Poll had refused to play a clear advantage, Darijo Srna appeased Croatia's complaints by curling the free-kick into the top corner for their first goal of the tournament. Viduka was then hauled to the floor by Simunic, whose brother is the chief executive of the Australian Professional Footballers' Association, but Poll waved play on, as he did in the second half when Stjepan Tomas punched the ball out of play. His first attempt at that ploy, in the 40th minute, did not succeed, however, and Craig Moore gleefully planted his penalty straight down the middle. A horrendous mistake by Zeljko Kalac allowed Niko Kovac to restore Croatia's advantage but, in the midst of a desperate onslaught, Kewell struck. "These boys have a lion's heart," said Hiddink. It is the lion's mouth that is of more interest to Poll today.
Croatia (3-4-1-2): Pletikosa (Hajduk Split); Simic (Milan), Tomas (Galatasaray), Simunic (Hertha Berlin); Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Tudor (Siena), N Kovac (Hertha Berlin), Babic (Bayer Leverkusen); Kranjcar (Hajduk Split); Olic (CSKA Moscow), Prso (Rangers). Substitutes used: Klasnic (Werder Bremen) for Tomas, 83; J Leko (Dynamo Kiev) for Kranjcar, 65; Modric (Dynamo Zagreb) for Olic, 74.
Australia (4-1-4-1): Kalac (Milan); Moore (Newcastle), Neill (Blackburn), Chipperfield (Basle), Culina (PSV); Grella (Parma); Sterjovski (Basle; Bresciano, 71), Emerton (Blackburn), Cahill (Everton), Kewell (Liverpool); Viduka (Middlesbrough). Substitutes used: Kennedy (Dynamo Dresden) for Chipperfield, 75; Aloisi (Alaves) for Grella, 63;
Referee: Graham Poll (England).
Sent off: Croatia Simic 85, Simunic 90; Australia: Emerton.
Man of the match: Kewell.Reuse content