Tuesday 13 July 2010

How Does a Referee Prepare for a World Cup Final?

This post takes a look at Match Preparation for Referees.

Three days before the World Cup Final on Sunday 11 July 2010—when FIFA announced its appointment of England referee trio Howard Webb and his two assistants Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey to officiate—there was plenty of good advice forthcoming. Referees are used to receiving advice and learning from experienced referees (or mentors); and the really smart ones take good advice to heart.

[English Trio: Mike Mullarkey, Howard Webb and Darren Cann. Pic from Getty Images.]

Let’s see what sagely advice some experienced referees publicly gave to Howard Webb:

[Pierluigi Collina. Pic from Reuters.]

Pierluigi Collina (Italy) advised:
"Be prepared – getting all the information possible about the teams – be self-confident and approach the match as a normal match, or at least in a normal way. Don't change anything because it is the World Cup final."

"The pressure in the World Cup final is very high but if you are there it is because you are very good, no other reason. But, on the other hand, you know that if something happens wrong, everything you did in the past probably doesn't matter. It vanishes. It's all about those 90 minutes. But I am sure that will not be the case. I wish him an outstanding day."

Collina refereed the 2002 World Cup Final between Germany and Brazil. The match finished 0-2, and there were only two yellow cards. Collina did what he had to do (stamped his authority) and cautioned Junior (Brazil) and Klose (Germany) in the 6th and 9th minutes, respectively. After that, the tone of the match was set.

Horacio Marcelo Elizondo (Argentina) advised:
“Enjoy it. He’ll be living his dream and he’ll be lucky enough to make it come true. I’d tell [Webb] to go about his work calmly and without fear, because at the end of the day it’s just another game. As soon as he starts making decisions he’ll start to feel better and begin enjoying the experience.”

“Every referee dreams about going to the World Cup and to make it is a big achievement in itself. If you then get the chance to go on and take charge of the Final, you feel as if you’re the world champion.”

Elizondo refereed the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy. The match finished 1-1 after extra time, with three yellow cards and one red card. Italy went on to win 5-3 on penalties. Elizondo quickly stamped his authority with cautions to Zambrotta (Italy) and Sagnol (France) in the 5th and 12th minutes, respectively. The match’s most memorable moment was Zidane’s headbutt into Materazzi’s chest, which Elizondo correctly awarded a red card for violent conduct in the 110th minute.

[Elizondo and Zindane. Pic from AFP.]

Furthermore, Bob Evans and Edward Bellion (in HKRef’s humble opinion, two of the most insightful refereeing minds, and co-authors of the best refereeing book to date) advised Howard Webb to prepare thoroughly and to anticipate likely scenarios. They confidently predicted that:
a) Holland would “rely on disruptive play and fouls to stymie their opponents”, so Webb should pay special attention to Mark van Bommel, Gregory van der Wiel and Nigel de Jong;
b) Simulation may occur, and that Arjen Robben is a likely practitioner; and
c) Both teams favour the quick free kick, so Webb should be alert to any delaying tactics by both teams.

“We are sure Howard Webb will also be doing his homework, and the first 10-15 minutes will be critical to see if these predictions materialize, and to see if he recognizes them and deals with them. If he does, we will have a good game. If not, there could be problems. Our money is on the former, and we wish him well in the match.”

So did Howard Webb take to heart the good advice handed down to him?

Here’s how Webb answered in response to a question about preparing for the biggest game of his career.
“It is a huge game and the pinnacle of our careers but we need to prepare as normally as possible. The game will still last 90 minutes or maybe two hours, we'll still have 22 players and one ball. We will eat at the same time as normal, have some good rest like before a Champions League game, but what we will do is visit the stadium. We have been to Soccer City but only as spectators so we would like to walk the field of play the day before and visualise some situations that might happen. These guys will have a look on their touchline, on the surface and visualise themselves running the line. I'll walk the diagonal that I'll mainly patrol. We did this before the Champions League final and it just makes you comfortable in your surroundings.”

Unfortunately, this response did not exactly reveal his in-depth match preparations. HKRef would be more interested in how Webb used his two full days to prepare (and perhaps he had even longer to prepare, assuming he analyzed the quarterfinal and semifinal matches in the time leading up to the announcement on 8 July?).

The following incidents occurred during the first half of the 2010 World Cup Final match between the Netherlands and Spain on Sunday 11 July 2010 in South Africa.

Missed Opportunity to Stamp His Authority?
In the 2nd minute, Webb had the opportunity to caution Robin van Persie (Holland) for a reckless tackle on Sergio Busquets (Spain). He didn't. That could have stamped his authority and set the tone of the match. Instead, Webb decided to publicly warn van Persie.

Further fouls appeared and eventually cautions were meted out in the 14th (Robin van Persie, Holland) and 16th minutes (Carles Puyol, Spain). However, disruptive play continued in addition to dangerous tackles flying in.

[In the 14th minute, Robin van Persie slides into Joan Capdevila. He is finally cautioned and Webb's initial warning 12 minutes before to van Persie was obviously not heeded. Pic from AFP/Getty Images.]

[One example of disruptive play: Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Holland) on Pedro (Spain). Pic from Reuters. Amazingly, Dirk Kuyt (far right) was one of only three Dutch players in the starting eleven who did NOT receive a caution.]

In the 22nd minute, van Bommel tackled Andres Iniesta from behind. This could and should have been a red card, but Webb only cautioned van Bommel. Again, this sent out a message to the players that the referee was permitting these tough and nasty challenges.

[Mark van Bommel tackling behind and through Andres Iniesta, for which he only received a yellow card. Pics from AFP/Getty Images and AP.]

In the 29th minute, Nigel de Jong (Holland) stabbed his studs into the chest of Xabi Alonso (Spain), but Webb only cautioned de Jong. By now, the players understood that “full all-out warfare” was on the cards, since the referee took a lenient stance. Players were simply taking each other out, disrupting play, which ultimately prevented any show of quality football. If Howard Webb believed his decisions (i.e. not to send off any players) were for the “good of the game” by allowing free-flowing football, then the outcome of the players’ actions (i.e. disrupting play) is a clear indictment against this.

[Nigel de Jong takes no prisoners as he stamps his studs into Xabi Alonso.]

Nigel De Jong Vs Xabi Alonso Kung Fu Fighting *better quality*

In the 33rd minute, Spain keeper Iker Casillas collides with teammate Puyol when catching the ball. Casillas throws the ball into touch at the halfway line so that Puyol could receive treatment. At the restart, Holland take the throw-in and kick the ball back to Casillas. However, the ball bounces unexpectedly fast and surprises Casillas who just manages to touch the ball with his fingertips as it goes out for a corner kick. The resulting corner is quickly taken by van Persie, with the aim of returning the ball back to Spain. But, the ball was placed outside the corner arc.

In the 43rd minute, Wesley Sneijder makes a reckless challenge on Sergio Busquets in his groin area. But Webb did not caution Sneijder.

In the 45th minute, van Bommel runs into the back of Webb and then pushes Webb in the back with his hands. Subsequently van Bommel is seen shouting at Webb for getting in his way.
[NOTE: this incident should have given Webb a wake-up call just before half-time. It was a clear indication of how poorly Webb was man-managing van Bommel (already on a caution) and the rest of the players on the field of play. The players were perhaps not respecting Webb because they sensed he was lenient and hesitant in stamping his authority.]

In the 45th +1st minute, AR Mike Mullarkey signals offiside against Holland. This appeared to be premature, and did not follow the "wait and see" principle.
[Edit: having reviewed this incident, Mike Mullarkey got this offside spot on. Dirk Kuyt was offside.]

At half-time, BBC Sport's Mark Lawrenson commented:
"The players are really not making this easy for Howard Webb are they?"

HKRef’s thoughts at half-time were the opposite to Lawro’s: that is, Webb has not made this easy for the players.

More to follow ...


  1. Dear HKREF,

    Your first half analysis is well documented.
    What is your background? I am looking forward to your analysis of the second half.

    John Matthew

  2. Thank you John

    I will be posting my analysis of the remainder of the cup final very soon. But first, there is another related analysis (another post) to come before that ... which I believe may have had some bearing on what actually happened during the cup final.


  3. In summary, Webb clearly lacked the courage to issue the early red cards because he was afraid of being criticized by the 700 Million non-referee viewers for ruining the WC final.

  4. The ball was on the arc.

  5. Let’s be reasonable here. Was the ball really properly placed for the corner kick? If the ball had been properly placed, this sequence of events that led to Holland “returning” the ball back to Spain would have been largely forgettable. As it happens, it was memorable exactly because van Persie did not place the ball on the corner arc. I am merely stating what occurred, and am not criticizing the match officials for failing to spot this breach of law.

  6. Thank you Rich. I agree with you on your first point about Webb. But as for your second point, it is quite a stretch to say Webb performed the way he did because he was afraid of the reaction of 700 million viewers! This is explained in my post “Puzzled by Poll”, since Graham Poll similarly claimed, incorrectly, that the reason Webb did not apply the LOTG appropriately and strictly was because he was worried about outcomes such as future media headlines. Consequences, especially those concerning the viewing public and media, should be furthest from the mind of the referee when officiating matches. It is perhaps more likely that Webb did not send anyone off for a reason (or reasons) as yet unknown to us, rather than be afraid of being slammed by 700 million viewers.