Disclaimer: I hate Howard Webb. All Spurs fans do. When Webb officiates a Spurs game, often against one of the big four, the big calls always go against Tottenham. Harry Redknapp himself said “I never seem to get a decision out of Howard Webb.” Now it might be that Webb hates Spurs, but it also might be (and this is my Howard Webb theory – that he tends to err or lean towards the more favored teams.
Now both teams after the final can complain about fouls/cards not given, as both teams did vehemently after the game. They were right to. But in the end I think the Dutch got the worst of it and feel right to be aggrieved. Webb overall did nothing to distinguish himself, got some very big calls wrong, and on those big calls, as my Spurs experience attests, they went to the team that was favored.
Yes, Spaniards will say legitimately that DeJong probably should have been sent off in the first half for his karate kick on Xabi Alonso. But I think complaining that too few cards were shown against the Dutch is pretty silly. The fact is that Howard Webb was pulling out cards left and right and I would argue that after receiving cards both defensive midfielders were pretty well behaved. Yes fouls were committed by them after that, but none were of an egregious variety. Spaniards may have a point about DeJong (and perhaps Van Bommel) deserving reds instead of yellows, but to say that not enough cards were shown is either to view the game with blinders or to not believe there is a difference between a normal foul and a yellow card challenge.
But beyond the DeJong yellow, Webb was inconsistent and got some big calls wrong that in the end sunk the Dutch.
First, he didn’t send Puyol off – essentially punishing Robben for not diving. Webb essentially punished Robben for being honest and not diving when he was impeded and fouled by Puyol. This was a huge moment. The foul wasn’t egregious, but it was a foul nonetheless as Puyol intentionally impeded and grabbed Robben from behind, creating just enough contact to throw Robben off as he raced toward goal. Here is the thing – if Robben dives there, Puyol is gone. But Robben was shockingly honest and went unrewarded. Webb should have played on and then given Puyol a second yellow. He got it wrong.
And in that moment anyone wondering why players dive, that’s why. Because refs hesitate to call fouls unless you topple over. Jozy could have gotten a late penalty against Ghana, but he stayed on his feet and pulled the shot wide. Referees simply don’t reward players in the box or in breakaway situations unless they dive.
Second, he unjustly sent Heitinga off and rewarded Iniesta for diving. This ended up being the difference in the game. In end, it wasn’t about beautiful football from Spain, it was about a dive from Iniesta that got the best Dutch defender sent off. With Heitinger off, Iniesta was then able to exploit the space that he would have occupied on the goal.
Even if you argue Iniesta was impeded and didn’t dive, than to make that call and not have sent Puyol off earlier reeks of inconsistency. And in many was typical Webb, who is trigger shy when it comes to making calls for the underdog, but inclined to make them for the favorite.
Finally, there was some real inconsistency and blown calls late. For instance, he stopped play for Iniesta petulantly kicking out at Van Bommel and ended up giving the Dutch a free kick, but gave no card. Iniesta didn’t do anything all that bad, but he did intentionally knock Van Bommel over away from play – it deserved a card. Yet he carded Heitinga for an innocuous foul after Iniesta rolled around and later sent him off for something even less innocuous. The Dutch also have a legit complaint about not receiving an obvious late corner.
Now Webb, or any referee was going to have a hard time as the Dutch midfield went about asserting themselves and the Spanish midfield went about embellishing every challenge. Some are slamming the Dutch for their aggressive play, but when you are playing against a team whose sole approach rests on maintaining possession and playing keep away with the ball, players have to get stuck in. Germany didn’t do this, committed very few fouls, and therefore almost never got the ball. By getting stuck in the Dutch made it a better game, as they created turnovers and some opportunities on the counterattack.
Let me just say that I can see people thinking this has turned into an anti-Spain blog. Trust me it hasn’t – Spain over the course of this World Cup cycle have been deserving champions. But under the extraordinary negativity of Del Bosque – who took a team that was playing brilliant flowing attacking football in 2008 into one that specializes at playing monkey-in-the-middle or keep away – it has been hard to be that excited by a team that did so little with so much possession. Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian called Span’s style as “beautiful attrition” and in the end that is exactly how they won the World Cup final – not to mention with a little bit of help from Howard Webb.