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Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Howard's way to the World Cup final?

Andrew Warshaw, South Africa

England may have flattered to deceive in the build-up to the World Cup and ultimately been well beaten but Howard Webb is living proof that when it comes to officiating on the global stage, English referees live up to expectations. • Blundering refs sent home While Uruguay's Jorge Larrionda and Roberto Rosetti of Italy, whose respective blunders caused them the kind of headlines referees dread, are among those to have packed their bags and left the tournament, Webb finds himself in the spotlight as one of the favourites to handle the final itself on July 11. Calm assurance is the hallmark, on and off the pitch, of this son of a former miner, who yearned to play professionally but went for the next best thing when he had "neither God-given talent or the necessary good fortune." A passionate Rotherham United fan, Webb discusses the standard of refereeing at the World Cup with the same fairness and diplomacy he tries to bring to bear when taking charge of 22 adrenaline-filled players. He says it would be "an honour" to take charge of the final but is taking nothing for granted and has nothing but admiration for his colleagues, especially those who come from countries like Uzbekistan and Pakistan who may not experience the weekly cut-and-thrust of a major professional league. "All of us are aware how much we are under scrutiny at the World Cup," Webb says. "It's the pinnacle, but it does disappoint me when people say that just because someone might come from an unfamiliar country that he can't do the job properly. "My colleague from Uzbekistan did the opening game and was superb. To me it proves even more what an excellent referee he is, coming from a country that doesn't have the same pressure week-in, week-out. This group has worked together at various levels for years, or we wouldn't be there. We haven't just been plucked out of a hat. We've been part of a long process." Of all the issues that have dominated the officiating in South Africa, none has generated greater debate than whether referees should explain controversial decisions as is the case in other sports. Webb gives a typically intelligent, if cautious, response. "There are perhaps some cases where we can explain decisions but only from the point of view of the laws of the game. When it comes to judgement calls, that's for others to say." He is reluctant to go into specifics, such as what sanctions to impose against errant goalkeepers. Red card? Yellow Card? Just a penalty? "You have to look at each situation and decide on what is the most appropriate punishment. Every situation is different, you just don't get carbon copies." Whilst he is open to anything that assists the officials, whether goal-line technology or two extra assistants, Webb is keen for football not to lose its inherent element of surprise and suspense. "The key is not to change the nature of the game. We mustn't lose its high tempo." A match official for the best part of 21 years, Webb has thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of his first World Cup. "We are a close-knit team, all of us, and very supportive of one another. FIFA takes its responsibilities very seriously in terms of looking after all our needs. In that respect we are quite like players." Speaking of whom, how much work actually goes into studying the teams beforehand? A lot, says Webb. "We look at patterns of previous games and maybe our own previous involvement. But we go into each game with an open mind, hoping no one talks about us afterwards. If we go away and no one mentions us, that's great news." And when gross mistakes are made and no apology is given to the spectators? Webb, as ever, defends his profession to the hilt and insists no one takes mistakes lightly. "On occasions it happens. We all share the same disappointment and we do care massively. Believe me, none of us walk away and say 'so what'? Players make mistakes too but I don't think they apologise to the fans. The message I want to give is that we strive for perfection though that is hard to achieve. There is never an ulterior motive. Sometimes what you read is quite bizarre." As he waits for the call that could make his day, Webb admits he has had to take the rough with the smooth over the years, both domestically and on the European and international stage. Managers berating officials, as has occurred frequently during this World Cup, is just part and parcel of the job. "Yes I've had to develop a thick skin, to learn that a lot of things that are said are not personal. But I'll tell you this: there are 30,000 refs in England and 29,999 would love to be in my shoes right now."

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