The Rational Ref

Character of Howard Webb shines through when it counts

Much-maligned English referee was spot on with his decisions in a key World Cup play-off match

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 9:35pm

Individuals under the spotlight usually have a reputation, but what should truly shine through is character. We saw this during the Sweden and Portugal second-leg play-off World Cup qualifier with a feisty Portuguese water dog, conceited Swedish Norse god and a tough thick-skinned British bulldog.

No offence but I meant, of course, Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo, Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic and top English referee Howard Webb respectively, and not their inflated and somewhat tarnished reputations.

Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic are perhaps the top two European players and their reputations precede them. Their coaches, teammates and supporters all sing their praises and everyone apparently considers the World Cup in Brazil next year to be a poorer event without either one of them.

In the first leg, these two soccer "gods" failed to enhance their reputations, although Ronaldo scored the solitary goal during a dull match. Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli officiated, although the media paid scant attention to him.

Webb's reputation precedes him, and the EPL must take the brunt of the responsibility
William Lai

In contrast, the media focused on Webb for the second leg. Sweden claimed Webb would permit them to tackle harder and be more physical without fear of incurring yellow cards. They said Webb would punish tricky players such as Ronaldo for diving and other antics.

Webb is best known for the 2010 World Cup final where he missed issuing a red card to Holland's Nigel De Jong for a kung-fu kick on Spain's Xabi Alonso, which led to the Yorkshire police sergeant gaining a reputation for being lenient and holding back on issuing cards.

Webb's reputation precedes him, and the EPL must take the brunt of the responsibility. The English game and its culture of preferring physicality over technicality is the reason why EPL referees, as a group, have a reputation for being lenient.

This flouting of the rules in the EPL has a knock-on effect and makes things difficult for match officials around the world who attempt to apply the rules properly and consistently without fear or favour. Youth, amateur and professional players alike will scream at referees when they are correctly shown deserved red or yellow cards. They react negatively because they incorrectly expect the same kind of treatment they see EPL referees dishing out.

Referees all over the world, including those in the lower ranks in England, have been taught to follow the rules as stated in the laws of the game. If players in, say Hong Kong or anywhere else, wish to have referees showing leniency, then all they need do is go play in the English Premier League.

Having said this, Webb performed fantastically on Tuesday. Although true to reputation he did not award the first of his five yellow cards until the 54th minute, he nevertheless correctly made a crucial decision in the 69th minute with the match delicately balanced at 1-1. Ironically it was Sweden's Kim Kallstrom who dived trolling for a penalty, and Webb cautioned him. Furthermore, Sweden received three other yellow cards for physical challenges. So much for Sweden's attempt at exerting psychological pressure.

Often, we have seen this kind of psychology backfire on those who use it in the media. Last season, when former Everton captain Phil Neville blasted Liverpool's Luis Suarez for diving before they met in their Merseyside derby, he himself ended up being booked for the same offence.

At the end of the day, the strong characters of Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and, most impressive of all, Webb, shone through. The world-class players scored their goals and showed they are capable of influencing their teams. More importantly Webb exemplified a Chinese proverb to perfection: "Don't consider your reputation and you may do anything you like".

Reputations, like records, are there to be broken. Now Webb can attempt to break the record of no World Cup final referee ever returning to referee another World Cup tournament.