JOHANNESBURG – The days leading up to a World Cup final always are fraught with nerves and tension and the search for any psychological advantage. With the appointment of English referee Howard Webb to take charge of Sunday’s big game, the Netherlands may have struck the first mental blow.
Webb is a fine official, and his selection as the man in the middle, following a tournament marred by poor decisions, should be no surprise. But, according to Spanish newspaper Marca, Spain’s players and officials are disgruntled that the 38-year-old former police officer was chosen by FIFA’s hierarchy.
“Bad news – Webb will referee the final,” was the newspaper’s verdict, while insisting that sources in the Spanish camp had revealed a general sense of disillusionment with the decision.
Much of that appears to stem from Webb’s officiating during the side’s shocking 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in its opening game of the tournament on June 16. Even though a FIFA source Friday night confirmed to Yahoo! Sports that the Englishman had been given a “strong rating” for his performance during the game, Spain was incensed by two controversial calls.
“There were some things we think should have been done differently,” said head coach Vicente del Bosque, two days after the Switzerland game.
Webb turned down a late penalty appeal from David Silva that would have given Spain a chance for an equalizer. There also was some conjecture over whether Switzerland’s goal should have been disallowed for offside, although television replays appeared to show Webb and his assistants made a close but correct call.
There also is some history between Webb and key members of the Spain team who play in the English Premier League. In his homeland the referee unfairly has been accused of being a Manchester United sympathizer and even has spoken out to defend himself from such claims.
“I don’t even come from Manchester,” he said in a recent interview. “If anything I prefer Sheffield United to Manchester because I come from Rotherham, which is 6 miles from Sheffield.”
Fans of EPL club Liverpool, where Spain striker Fernando Torres is a star, still criticize Webb for two decisions in the 2008-09 season that went in United’s favor. United narrowly won the EPL title, with Liverpool in second.
Webb also has a less-than-stellar reputation with EPL side Arsenal, home of Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas. During the 2007 Carling Cup final Webb red carded two Arsenal players and yellow carded Fabregas, and Chelsea went on to lift the trophy.
A popular anti-Webb jibe that is making the rounds on the Internet reads as follows: “Manchester City will have two representatives in Sunday’s World Cup final, Nigel de Jong and David Silva. Manchester United will have just one, Howard Webb.”
It must be remembered that such accusations from soccer fans are nothing new. I have watched Webb in action for many years and find him to be one of the best, fairest and most consistent in the EPL and certainly one of the most in-form at this World Cup.
The man from England will be immune to any criticism that heads his way leading up to the final. All referees have been sequestered away at a high-security base near Pretoria and kept away from newspaper and television coverage of the World Cup.
Perhaps it is just as well.
Because perhaps the most stinging jibe of all may have come not from an embittered soccer player or a fan but in a joking aside from Webb’s own wife.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Webb’s wife Kay told the London Daily Telegraph. “He can’t take charge of his own children. I don’t know how he manages it on a football pitch.”
no hate on the fam plz, let's leave all that to dudes with beerbellies