Webb admits he made errors in World Cup final
Six weeks since he 'lost control' on the biggest night of his career, England's top referee has finally answered his critics
There were three of them in the referee's room at the vast Soccer City complex in Johannesburg. It was close to midnight, their World Cup was over, they had received their medals and been booed off.
Howard Webb had given 13 yellow and one red card and the Dutch midfielder, Wesley Sneijder, thought his display had "robbed" the Netherlands of their first World Cup. The Yorkshireman was embraced by feelings of both exhaustion and despair as they left the pitch.
And then his assistant, Darren Cann, switched on his mobile phone and the messages of support, some predictable, others from wildly unexpected sources, began to pour in.
There is nothing in sport quite as uplifting and finite as being asked to referee a World Cup final. You are at the centre of the sporting world, with supreme power, in the certain knowledge that it will never be offered to you again. Webb, a referee and the son of a referee, would have no second chance.
The sheer physicality of the final surprised everyone – Johan Cruyff actually criticised Webb for being too lenient with his fellow Dutchmen. Certainly, Webb now admits he should have sent off Nigel de Jong in the first half for a chest high lunge at Xabi Alonso.
However, given comments from Arjen Robben that, having lost two finals playing pretty football, the Netherlands were not overly concerned with how they won, perhaps it should not have been so unexpected.
It began violently. The first thing that the teams standing in the tunnel saw was a spectator, who had run on to the pitch and been felled in an attempt to touch the World Cup, being carried through on a stretcher. Webb thought the trophy, standing a few feet away, was the shiniest, most glittering thing he had ever seen.
"Within 20 minutes we knew how it was going to turn out," said Webb, who had interrupted a holiday in Cornwall to fly to Manchester to support the 2018 World Cup bid. "I knew quite a lot of the players but the emotions in that final were quite raw because neither nation had won it before. You could smell the tension. At the end, the Dutch were devastated, disappointed and, in some cases, angry.
"As a referee, you become hardened to the booing. I think my wife was being filmed watching the game on television and her emotions were quite clear about the reception we received. It would have been great to have received a cheer or a round of applause but I realise it's not going to happen.
"When I came home the kids had put banners up in the windows saying: 'Congratulations' and 'Welcome Home Daddy'. I had been away for six weeks and, like a soldier serving in Afghanistan, it's always good to come home.
"I watched the entire game, the full two hours, four or five days after I came back and I invited a Premier League colleague to watch it with me. We agreed there was not much about my performance we would change.
"There are just a couple of things that stand out. One of them was when I gave a goal-kick instead of a corner. People pointed out that Spain's goal was scored shortly after that but it came a minute later and the Dutch regained possession during that time, so how far do you go back?
"And I would red-card De Jong. My decision to show him yellow wasn't based on a desire not to send someone off in a World Cup final. I knew it was high but I didn't realise how bad it was until later. That was down to just a bad view of the actual incident."
Only two other Englishmen have refereed World Cup finals and both found themselves in the midst of controversy. In 1954, in Berne, William Ling disallowed a goal from Ferenc Puskas that would have sent the final between Hungary and West Germany into extra time. Twenty years later, Jack Taylor awarded a penalty to the Netherlands in the first minute of the final in Munich. The West German captain, Franz Beckenbauer, walked over to him with the pithy, bitter observation: "Taylor, you're an Englishman."
Taylor and Webb met in Johannesburg before the final and the old Wolverhampton butcher, now 80, said Uli Hoeness' challenge on Cruyff had been so blatant that, "I could have awarded it from the car park."
The World Cups of 1954, 1974 and 2010 were deserts of English underachievement, which is why the finals were officiated by Englishmen. "We shared the nation's disappointment over what happened with the national team," said Webb. "But there was one funny moment when we walked out at Soccer City – someone pointed out to us an English flag that said: 'Can't Play. Can Ref'.
"We spent six weeks in South Africa and we came to appreciate how much it had consumed the country. We watched South Africa's game with France in a shopping mall in Pretoria and, when South Africa scored, the cleaners went crazy, running up and down waving their mops. It will mean everything if it comes here."
Webb will have retired by 2018 but he, Cann and his other assistant, Mike Mullarkey, have hopes of Brazil in four years' time. Not the final but perhaps the opening match, a game in which their presence will, they hope, pass without comment.
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