Howard Webb: 'When I got the final I wanted to stand up and scream'

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Interview No 4: The World Cup showpiece was a nightmare to control, but England's leading referee tells Sam Wallace it was his proudest day

At 8.25pm on 11 July, Howard Webb stood in the tunnel at Soccer City in Johannesburg and looked out towards the Fifa World Cup trophy on a plinth on the pitch.

"I have seen replicas before but it was the first time I had seen the real thing," he says. "It was so shiny. Unbelievable." There was a delay while the security guards removed a pitch invader during which time an official told Webb that Fifa expected a television audience of two billion.

Then the signal was given and Webb walked forward, leading out the teams of the Netherlands and Spain for the 19th World Cup final. He was 39, a referee for 22 years of his life, and this was to be the pinnacle of his career.

One hundred and twenty minutes later he had given 14 yellow cards and one red – more than in any of the 500-plus matches he had refereed. His decisions would be talked about for weeks. Unlike any other Englishman in football in 2010, Webb was involved in the two biggest games on the planet: the Champions League and World Cup finals, both in the space of 51 days. Here he tells his story.

From Pontefract to Soccer City, every game shapes you

If you make it as a top footballer you are picked up by a top club and put in their academy. You don't play for the teams in the Northern Counties East League or the Conference North. I have experienced all of those – from refereeing pub teams right the way up to the World Cup final.

It has been an amazing experience. My first game in the Northern Counties East at Pontefract Collieries. My first Conference game at Northwich Victoria. My first Football League game at Darlington. My first Premier League game at Fulham. Hundreds of games and each one of them shapes you. Without all those experiences what I have done wouldn't be possible.

Now I get recognised in the street

I was in London last week and the guy I was with said: "Do you realise just how many people double-take when you walk past?" Since the World Cup everybody has been really supportive. They usually say, "Hey, I thought you did really well in that World Cup final."

Throughout your career you are going to make decisions that aren't popular. Sometimes they are not right either, although you try to make them right. Even fans that maybe had a grievance before will stop and say "Well done".

The World Cup's Bloody Sunday

That was what they [the referees] called the day England played Germany. That day was massively influential. [Jorge] Larrionda, who refereed the England game, is probably the best referee in the world. He went home [after the mistake for Frank Lampard's "goal"].

The same day [Roberto] Rosetti and Stefano Ayroldi missed [Carlos] Tevez when he was miles offside for Argentina's first goal against Mexico. The next morning I got up for breakfast at 7am and looked out the window. Rosetti was walking around the hotel grounds with his head down. I went out to see him. He said: 'It's over, my career is over. I'm finished.' He had refereed the final at Euro 2008.

The following day we had Brazil v Chile and Fifa said to us: "We need this show back on the road". No pressure then! The boys [Webb's assistants] were outstanding. Darren [Cann] and Mullers [Mike Mullarkey] are robotically good at what they do.

I'm thinking 'say Webb, say Webb, say Webb'.

After Brazil v Chile we knew we had given ourselves a chance of another game. But we didn't know what. We didn't get a quarter-final or a semi-final. So then we were thinking, "We might get nothing here".

Only nine of the 29 refereeing teams were left. On the Wednesday night after the second semi-final we were called into the conference room for a debriefing. Someone from the Fifa referees committee stood up and said: "We are now going to announce match No 63 and match No 64." He never said "World Cup final", he said "Match No 64".

Probably our biggest competitor at the time was Benito Archundia. He had done a semi-final in Germany four years ago. He's a good referee. His father had been assistant to Jack Taylor in the 1974 final. The Fifa official said: "Uruguay against Germany ... referee: Archundia." I kept the excitement in.

There were another seven referees in the room but two had done semi-finals. They could have put an unusual name in there but it was unlikely. He said: "Match No 64, Netherlands against Spain, referee ..." I'm thinking "Say Webb, say Webb, say Webb". He said: "Webb". I wanted to stand up and scream.

Very graciously, Archundia shook my hand. There was a meeting for the next 45 minutes and all the time I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. Fifa had made the announcement. I got nearly 400 messages in the space of an hour. I answered every one.

How my wife became my greatest critic – live on television

They went live to the Webb household! That was when the famous quote from Kay came. They asked her, "What's he like at home?" She said: "Oh no, he can't even control his kids, I wonder how he can control a game of football."

On the back page of the Pretoria News the next morning was: "World Cup referee's wife doubts his ability to referee the final" It was just a joke but when it's in black and white ... she was quite upset about that. GMTV even filmed her watching the final. I said: "Why did you agree to it?" She said: "How do you say no to people?"

Then Blatter told me: You're in charge because you're the best

I can sleep easy on the [Nigel] De Jong decision. No one had told me before the game: "Don't send people off". They said: "Trust your instincts". In the line-up before the game Sepp Blatter had actually gone past and as he was about to go to the Dutch team he came back and said: "Webb, don't forget, we have appointed you because you're the best man for the job."

'That'll settle the game down,' I said to the boys. It didn't

The game started OK. I warned [Mark] Van Bommel and [Robin] Van Persie in the first few minutes. I just said to them: "Remember where we are and what we are doing. Let's be sensible guys."' It was all about getting the trust of the players – not overreacting but equally making sure I dealt with it.

Both sides were this close to being icons for ever. Think about how we treat our 1966 team. Neither team had got a star on their shirt and they wanted one. You could see in the first minute with the tackle Van Persie put in on [Sergio] Busquets.

After two warnings we had two yellow cards in the first 16 minutes. I had no choice having warned Van Persie. Then [Carles] Puyol went through the back of [Arjen] Robben. Again, a clear yellow card.

There is a picture in Pierliugi Collina's autobiography and the caption is something like: "This is my second yellow card of the 2002 World Cup final after 15 minutes, which settled the game down nicely". I actually said to the guys [assistants] on the radio: "That'll settle the game down nicely, boys". By 22 minutes I had given two more yellow cards and there was no sign of it stopping.

The Champions League final was a totally different story

In the Champions League final there was a moment when we had the chance to play a really easy advantage which led to the second goal. There was a foul on [Wesley] Sneijder in the centre-circle. The ball broke to Samuel Eto'o. I said: "Play on," he played in Diego Milito who scored.

From a refereeing point of view that is as good as it gets. At 2-0 we knew we had control of the game. There was no pressure because it was only going to go one way after that. We enjoyed the last 20 minutes and afterwards we bounced up the steps at the Bernabeu.

I couldn't see the De Jong incident – so how could I send him off?

I was looking directly through the back of [Xabi] Alonso which wasn't a good position but it was the best position for that phase of play. De Jong was just to the side of Alonso. The ball bounced, he [Alonso] headed it and fell backwards and De Jong was to the side with his arms up in an admission of guilt.

It was obvious something had happened. I waited to see if anyone had some information [on the two-way radio]. If you watch it back, as Alonso heads the ball forward there is a potential advantage/offside situation that Darren has to call. Darren would have had a good view but he missed it. He had to look at the offside.

It was 27 minutes into the game. This was the pinnacle of people's careers. Am I going to guess? Send him off on a possible? Then everybody says: "That was never a red card in a million years". I was never going to gamble. I like to have a level of certainty. I believe it is preferable to miss something that happened than give something that hasn't.

I feared it was the end of my career

Immediately afterwards I didn't know how the game had been received. The unknown factor was a problem for us. Bear in mind the most cards I have ever given before was 10 yellows and one red, Fulham v Arsenal [November 2006]. So to get "14 and one" in my most important game, a lifetime-defining game, was quite scary.

Was that the end of my career? Did people think I had made a mess of it? Had I lost control of the game? I didn't feel I had. I felt then, as I do now, that I did what I had to do. There was a relief that we finished the game; that it hadn't become farcical. We wouldn't have wanted one team finishing with eight players. Part of the job was respecting the occasion.

In the dressing room Darren handed me his mobile phone and there was message after message saying to us, "Well done", "Proud of you", "You stuck in there". We had a great level of support from so many people.

Home – and sneaking past the press

When I got home from the World Cup there were press outside the house. Kay had taken them trays of tea and coffee. As we pulled up I got out the back door and ran inside while they were all in their cars drinking tea and eating biscuits! The Premier League told me to go out and say a few words which I did.

The players treat me differently now

My first Champions League match back was Hapoel Tel Aviv against Lyons. I gave a penalty – it was a clear penalty – after about seven minutes to Lyons. The Hapoel keeper came up to me and said: "It must be a penalty because you're the World Cup final referee". It is interesting, the reaction of some people.

On the field, there seems to be a honeymoon period. How long that will last, I don't know. Players do seem to give me more respect. I feel quite relaxed about my refereeing knowing that I have done those games and I can't do them again. But I am not blasé, I am still nervous before the game, still desperate to do well.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself

At times I do still think, "Ah, that's amazing. Did that really happen?" Looking back now we are really quite proud of the fact that we put ourselves in a position to be appointed to these games. A lot of things had to fall into place to make it possible. There are a lot of wonderful, dedicated, talented referees who never get anywhere near what I got to this summer. It was an extraordinary few months. I still have a glow inside about it.

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