October 07, 2010

World Cup Final 2010

2010 FIFA World CupImage via WikipediaFrom the outset let me declare that I am and have been an avid supporter of Dutchfootball since they first introduced the world to the style known as total football in the early 1970s through the likes of Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens, and the flying dutch-man Johan Cruyff - widely regarded as the top European footballer of all time and second only to the legendary Brazilian PelĂ© for the title of best ever! Having said so, let me say too that I enjoy watching all who are adept at playing 'the beautiful game' no matter what color adorns their uniform. The English - credited with inventing both games,  have a saying: "that's just not cricket" in referring to some situation that seems patently unfair. I would like to adapt that saying in expressing my view about Sunday's championship game "That's just not football"!

Before the final match of the 2010 World Cup it was widely felt that these two sides might end up canceling out each other as both were noted for defense and controlling midfield. During the earlier games Spain had found it difficult to get the ball in the back of the net, with just 7 goals scored while the Netherlands had managed 12, including 2 against Brazil (the top-ranked team) to put them out of the competition. Spain on the other hand, had kept a tighter sheet in conceding just 2 goals to Holland's 5, and though Spain failed to score while losing their very first game of the championship, Holland had scored in every match (1-3 goals) and also won every game. Both teams had formidable strikers with one on each side being in the running for top-scorer. So the scene was set for what could turn out to be an entertaining, hard-fought match with hopefully the better team prevailing. Supposedly the officiating would be of a high enough standard to match that of the play of the two teams competing for the title of World Cup 2010 champions. It is said that the hallmark of a good referee is the ability to control the match without becoming the center of attention and without directly influencing the outcome of the game - since it is the players on the field who are charged with delivering a result, be it win, lose or draw.

From early on it was apparent that Howard Webb (the top English referee selected) had failed in exhibiting the first element of good refereeing as he became embroiled in dishing out caution after caution often for no clearly valid reason, in one instance issuing a 'yellow card' for what was not even a foul. This caused the players to lose confidence in his stewardship and frustration to set in so that many became distracted from the game itself. As the match wore on, some began to directly question his decisions, leading to even more cautions (at least 4 in this manner), so that by the end of the game he had issued a record 14 'yellow cards' - more than double the previous record set 20+ years ago. After losing almost all control (and respect) of players he then resorted to calling them aside to admonish them with wild gestures, since issuing more cards would only result in wholesale sending offs. This new approach came too late, however, for one Dutch defender who was given a second card after having received a prior caution for a non-card offense. Earlier on he had issued a 'yellow card' to another Dutch player for an offense that could have meant a 'red card', so one cancels out the other. However, two Spanish players who should have gotten 'red cards' were given cautions instead, meaning that Spain should have ended up with 9 players to Holland's 10, rather than the latter being a man short - this led to the decisive goal, which coincidentally came off the boot of one of the two Spanish players who should have been sent off.

Aside from the record number of cautions (many questionable) which put Howard Webb center stage and caused him to lose control, there were many missed calls on corner kicks - the most important and glaring of which started the move that then led to the lone goal as Spain were granted a goal kick, giving them back possession of the ball, which was scored with by Iniesta, one of two Spanish players who should have been sent off earlier. Another glaring mistake by the referee was failing to award a penalty when the foremost Dutch forward, Robben was pulled back by a Spanish defender with the goal in his direct line of sight - an instant 'red card' offense. This should then have led to Spain's second sending-off (neither were given) and to a scoring chance for the Dutch. Finally, in the build-up to the goal that was scored by the not 'red-carded' Iniesta, a Dutch player was blocked off and tripped, a foul which should clearly have resulted in a free-kick to the Dutch, who all seemed stunned that it was not given. Already down to 10 men they were unable then to thwart the only Spanish attack that scored!

So why was Howard Webb, the top English referee and otherwise well-respected unable to live up to the standard set by his predecessors and expected for a match of this caliber? Who knows exactly? One reason could be that he had officiated in Spain's first match which they lost - afterward there were many complaints by the Spanish players of refereeing bias. Did knowing this cause him to act a bit more leniently to Spain in his decisions, leading ultimately to a total breakdown in control? At any rate FIFA surely ought to have factored that in before deciding to appoint him for the big finale. Or maybe he was just following in the footsteps of another highly regarded English referee, who at the last World Cup in Germany mistakenly awarded one player 3 yellow cards before finally sending him off. For that error he did not get to referee another game. Of course, being the last game of the competition Howard Webb will not miss any later matches but got onto theTop Five Worst World Cup Refereeing Performances Of The Last Decade. As referee he certainly stamped his authority all over the final, though I think he would have done both himself and the game of football a great favor if his competence had also shown up in equal measure! While I am not sure that the better team won out on Sunday, it is certain that football lost!

Whatever the reasons for the generally poor standard of officiating at the 2010 World Cup - from goals that crossed the line not being allowed to 'offside' goals being allowed to stand (for both of which apologies were later issued by FIFA president Sepp Blatter), proper steps must be taken to avoid a repeat as fans and supporters will eventually lose interest when teams that should prevail end up getting the 'short end of the stick'. Indeed Holland will rightfully question whether the outcome of the match that decides the top football nation for the next four years would not have been very different had a player who should have been 'sent to the showers' not been allowed to remain on the field to score the winning goal (with 90 seconds left), or if Webb had been alert in spotting the foul that was clearly seen by all eyes in the stadium, so that they would have have had the ball rather than Spain, or if they had not been unfairly put at a one-man disadvantage through inconsistent refereeing. Then perhaps it would have actually been the players on the field deciding the outcome rather than the referee. Supporters of both teams in and out of the stadium surely deserved much better! For the Netherlands they are now left to 'lick their wounds' after a third appearance in the final match of a World Cup. In the first two they lost to countries hosting the championships, whilst in the third again coming out on the losing end - this time due to officiating errors. Did someone say technology - instant replays as in other sports? Holland must now start all over towards rebuilding that 25-match unbeaten streak that was unceremoniously and unfairly torn away from their hands (or feet maybe) on Sunday last.
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