Wednesday 14 July 2010

Puzzled by Poll

Graham Poll has come out in defence of Howard Webb’s performance during the 2010 World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain … but his reasoning is faulty. Poll’s reason for supporting Webb is puzzling, and demonstrates an unhealthy bias towards his refereeing colleague and fellow countryman.

[Graham Poll and Howard Webb. Pics from BBC Sport.]

Poll has correctly acknowledged that Webb did not apply the Laws of the Game appropriately. Two incidents that come to mind are the non-decisions to send off Mark van Bommel in the 22nd minute for serious foul play (a tackle on Andres Iniesta from behind), and Nigel de Jong in the 29th minute for violent conduct (putting his studs into the chest of Xabi Alonso). These incidents of misconduct are covered in the LOTG, so it would be interesting to uncover what Webb’s take on them were.

However, Poll has incorrectly taken the view that the reason Webb did not apply the LOTG appropriately was because Webb was worried about the media headlines and the lack of support he would get from FIFA after the match. Here are Poll’s exact words:

1) We should look at why all referees feel so hamstrung when faced with having to take strict disciplinary actions at any high-level match - let alone the World Cup final.

2) The laws of football are in place to enable referees to deal strongly with the anti-football tactics used by the Dutch to stifle Spanish creativity. No new ones would need to be introduced to punish tackles which endanger the safety of opponents.

3) Had Van Persie been shown a yellow card in the first minute and three Dutch players been dismissed in the first half hour, what would the headlines have been - 'Ref madness mars final'?

4) When players surrounded Webb, as they did all too frequently, had he cautioned all of them, as the law allows, what would the reaction have been?

What Poppycock from Poll! Poll’s reasoning is flawed … in so many ways. Here’s why:

Firstly, Poll has removed emphasis on Webb’s decision by grouping Webb with ALL referees and claiming that ALL referees feel “so hamstrung” when faced with taking strict disciplinary action.
This is an irrelevant argument because the focus should be on Webb’s decision NOT to send off players involved in serious foul play and violent conduct during the World Cup Final. We are not here to debate or discuss what ALL referees “feel”. We are here to comment on Webb’s performance.

Secondly, Poll has removed emphasis on Webb’s decision by stating: “no new laws need to be introduced to punish tackles which endanger the safety of opponents”.
Again, this is an irrelevant argument, and attempts to misdirect. We are not here to comment on any changes to the LOTG, but on Webb’s performance in applying the LOTG appropriately.

Thirdly, Poll hypothetically asks: “had van Persie been shown a yellow card in the first minute and three Dutch players been dismissed in the first half hour, what would the headlines have been?”
This is another irrelevant argument and an appeal to ignorance (because there is a lack of evidence to support what Poll has claimed). This is particularly surprising because Poll has previously used the counter-claim many times in his newspaper column that a first caution will affect and modify the behaviour of individual players and also teams (i.e. if players are on a caution they will try not to put themselves in situations that could result in a second caution, while other players will also know that the referee has drawn a line).

Other people (including HKRef) could hypothetically say that: “had van Persie been shown a yellow card in the first minute, then Webb would have immediately stamped his authority on the game which would have made the Dutch players rethink their approach to dangerous tackling with excessive force”. At least this argument has some evidence to support it: that is, consider the actions of the previous two World Cup Finals referees (Pierluigi Collina in 2002 and Horacio Elizondo in 2006) and how they immediately stamped their authority on their respective matches.

Furthermore, since when have referees been “influenced” by future media headlines? If Poll genuinely believes referees are concerned about future media headlines so that it significantly impacts the way they referee, then he is in the minority. Poll’s negative experience with his “three card trick” (i.e. giving three yellow cards to the same player in a World Cup match in 2006) may now be hovering over him like a dark cloud; so much so that Poll is now forced to consider the media’s position, especially since he now works in the media industry too.

A referee—whether a lowly parks referee or one who officiates the World Cup Final—must perform his duties without fear or favour, with integrity and to the best of his ability. Thoughts about the consequences, particularly towards future media headlines and to FIFA’s “wrath”, should be furthest from the mind of the referee.

Fourthly, Poll claims that when players surrounded Webb: “had he cautioned all of them, as the law allows, what would the reaction have been?”
As a former referee, Poll knows in such situations, if a caution is warranted, then referees will normally issue one or at most two (one for each team) yellow cards. The same principle is used when cautioning troublesome players in a wall—only one player, usually the nearest one, is cautioned. Whoever heard of top referees cautioning "all of them"? Therefore, it is disingenuous for Poll to claim Webb would not caution all of the players because as referees we already know this is not the standard practice. Of course referees would not caution all players (but the non-refereeing public may not know this). Poll’s argument is therefore faulty, and totally disingenuous.

The advice given to Howard Webb by experienced referees (or mentors), such as Pierluigi Collina, Horacio Elizondo, Bob Evans and Ed Bellion was to approach the match as normally as possible … and this includes refereeing the match as normally as possible. Webb obviously knows how to referee without fear or favour, with integrity and to the best of his ability. So why didn’t Webb follow the LOTG? Were last-minute instructions handed down to him (from FIFA or by the FIFA Referees Committee?) requesting that he best keep all players on the field of play, no matter what? If so, his normal approach to refereeing has been changed.

Webb’s comments appear to indicate that the concern to keep all players on the field of play took precedence over the LOTG.
"We don't feel that we had much choice except to manage the game in the way we did. From early on in the match we had to make decisions that were clear yellow cards. We tried to apply some common sense officiating given the magnitude of the occasion for both sides - advising players early on for some of their tackling, sending players away when they were surrounding the officials, and speaking to their senior colleagues to try to calm them down. It is one of the toughest games we will ever be involved in and we feel that we worked hard to keep the focus on the football as much as possible."

However, there is no need to change anything, or to give special treatment to players just because it is a World Cup Final. The referee should first and foremost follow the LOTG, and after that he is free to use his personality and “common sense officiating” to take care of “grey areas” that are not specifically covered by the LOTG. That should be the order of officiating.

As referees, we have to recognize any potential bias and remove (and be seen to remove) ourselves from any conflicts of interest. Once we can do this, it should be clear that:

a) The English media and English referees (e.g. Graham Poll, Keith Hackett, Dermot Gallagher, Jack Taylor) are biased in favour of Howard Webb; and

b) The Dutch media and Dutch players are biased against Howard Webb.

HKRef would like to see a more balanced and neutral assessment of Howard Webb’s performance in the 2010 World Cup Final.

If a balanced and neutral assessment cannot be obtained easily, then there is something seriously wrong and “Respect for Football (Soccer), Responsible Refereeing, and Rational Reflections” (HKRef’s Triple Hope for Refereeing) will be lost.

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