The World Cup final will have an English team in it after all. The referee Howard Webb and his two assistants were selected yesterday to take charge of the most prestigious football match in the world.
The nomination is a huge honour for the 38-year-old former policeman from Rotherham and his assistants (formerly known as linesmen), Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey. Their achievement is all the more remarkable because the trio took charge of the Champions League final – the biggest club game in Europe – in May.
Webb's rise through the extremely competitive ranks of elite referees has been rapid. He only became a Premier League referee in 2003, when his sharp decision-making got him immediately noticed. He is also well known for his imposing physique, which gives him a natural authority among famous, and often argumentative, millionaire footballers.
Having not been chosen for the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the tournament, Webb, who has impressed in his games so far, knew that he was in the running for Sunday's showcase between Spain and Holland. His chief rival was Benito Archundia, a 44-year-old Mexican lawyer, who has the advantage of fluency in Spanish and English.
The referees for the World Cup are carefully selected from the 208 national associations affiliated to Fifa, football's world governing body, and then have to go through rigorous physical tests. Three refereeing teams were sent home before the tournament began, having failed. The chosen 30 were based in Pretoria, where they are kept under armed guard because of fears over potential blackmail from underworld match-fixers.
Webb came from a mining family in South Yorkshire and told The Independent in a recent interview that as a 12-year-old he witnessed the Orgreave riot during the miners' strike in 1984. However, his natural sense of order meant that he joined the same South Yorkshire force, which clashed with the miners that day, leaving when he became a professional referee.
Five years after the Orgreave riot, in 1989, Webb took charge of his first game in the village of Orgreave as an 18-year-old newly qualified referee: it was in the local under-11s league.
It is the first time that an Englishman has been given the honour of a World Cup final since 1974 when Jack Taylor, a butcher from Wolverhampton, took charge of West Germany's 2-1 victory over Holland in Munich. On that occasion, Taylor gave two penalties in the first 25 minutes, having first delayed the kick-off because he noticed at the last minute that the corner flags were missing.
Refereeing has changed significantly since then with the advent of professional officials. Webb is paid around £65,000 a year to take charge of the biggest games in the Premier League and across Europe, although that is a fraction of what some of the players he referees earn in a week. The salary does not compare favourably with wages of referees in other European countries.
Webb said before the tournament that he wanted to get as far as he could, although that depended on England's progress too. He said recently: "We just go out there hoping to give a good account of ourselves. We hope to be lucky but you can make your own luck as well and if you're refereeing confidently, you tend to be lucky."
All three men use a sports psychologist who helps them to cope with the stresses of the job. Webb said: "Every game is important, we understand the stakes and how important it is to everyone involved. But also, we try to put it into some perspective as well."
He took charge of the explosive Italy against Slovakia game in which a tight call on an offside decision denied the Italians a goal. He was also handed the prestigious Brazil versus Chile second-round game in which Webb and Cann drew praise for allowing a goal by the Brazilian Luis Fabiano which looked offside at first sight but replays showed was legal. He has dealt with pressure before. At the 2008 European Championships one decision enraged Polish supporters to the extent that Webb was the subject of death threats. Webb tells the story that when he arrived in Salzburg later in the tournament he was met personally by the chief of police who promised him solemnly: "Mr Webb, we will not let them kill you in our city."Reuse content