Ex-World Cup Final Referee Talks About This Critical Role Ahead Of Croatia Vs. France On the eve of the World Cup Final, NPR's Michel Martin chats with former FIFA Referee Howard Webb about what it takes to referee one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
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Ex-World Cup Final Referee Talks About This Critical Role Ahead Of Croatia Vs. France

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Ex-World Cup Final Referee Talks About This Critical Role Ahead Of Croatia Vs. France

Ex-World Cup Final Referee Talks About This Critical Role Ahead Of Croatia Vs. France

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There have been tears, tantrums, some vaudeville-quality acting, and plenty of surprises but it's all coming to an end. Yes, the end of this year's World Cup is upon us. Tomorrow, France and Croatia face off for the championship. We're not going to try to predict the result, that would be crazy. Instead, we thought we would take a minute to reflect on the people who will be critical to tomorrow's proceedings. And we can safely predict we'll be blamed no matter who wins tomorrow - yes, we're talking about the referees.

We were wondering what it takes to referee a World Cup final, so we've called Howard Webb. He refereed the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain. He's now general manager of the Professional Referee Organization, and he's with us now on the line from Minneapolis, where he is at a referee camp. Mr. Webb, thanks so much for joining us.

HOWARD WEBB: Hi, Michel, my pleasure.

MARTIN: The 2010 World Cup final in which you refereed is famous or some might say infamous for being dirty. I mean, some of the comments below the YouTube highlights - I mean, some of the comments are priceless like the ones that I can safely read say, for example, like the Dutch are dirtier than a seedy Amsterdam cinema. The Dutch are fouling. Spain are diving. And then they use a certain epithet that we can't say on the air to describe the game. You've actually been quoted as saying it was the worst two hours of your life, is that true?

WEBB: It was the hardest two hours, for sure. Yeah, it was up there among the most difficult games of all time. And for that to happen in the final, when maybe a billion people are watching, kind of puts you in a difficult spot as the referee. And, you know, you're there to do a job, you're there to, you know, apply the laws of the game fearlessly and fairly.

But equally, you know, you don't want to overreact. You don't want to spoil the game. You don't want to underreact and create more difficulties. And it's a tricky balance to strike, and it ended up with me showing 14 yellow cards in the game, which is more than any other game. I refereed over 500 professional games. But, yeah, that was the hardest, and with that number of cards, which so certainly reflect that.

MARTIN: And is it true that you are a police officer, actually, by training?

WEBB: Yes. So, when I left school, I joined the police service in the United Kingdom, and the refereeing was only a hobby. I mean, my father encouraged me to become a referee. I wanted to be a professional footballer like many young kids and worked hard and tried to improve and get better, but I just didn't really have the talent that you'd need to make it to the top. And I can remember my initial reaction was, well - not really because, you know, when I think about football, soccer referees in my mind's eye, I think about bald old men. And that's not what I wanted to be, but that's what I've become to be in life. And so...

MARTIN: Well, the reason I mentioned it is that there was a thought - in fact, some of the commentators said, at the time, that your police officer background would probably be, you know, helpful in dealing with the level of conflict in the match. But some of the commentary, as I said, was quite pointed - they said, well, he doesn't have a truncheon. You know, what can you do? So - and also the other question I think a lot of us had is that there are so many languages at World Cup, how do you communicate with the players? Is there a - a language barrier ever a problem?

WEBB: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, those two points are connected quite heavily, you know, one in terms of police training and the other about language. You're right, you don't have a truncheon that you can use on the field, but you learn to use really strong body language. As a police officer, you learn to stay calm. You learn to, you know, take on information, some observation. You learn to, you know, be decisive and make a decision based on your knowledge of the laws of the land or, in my case, the laws of the game.

And you need to speak sometimes to players. If we do speak to players from different countries, generally English will be the default language. And I used to find as well, you know, sometimes the less that I said, the more impactful it was. You know, if you could, you know, look at a player in a certain way to tell him that you weren't really impressed by what he'd just done, that spoke volumes more than words, really. And being quite imposing physically, that also helped, I think, in gaining, I guess, the respect of the players and their cooperation.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. This has been very interesting. Before we let you go, can I ask how you're feeling about the English team?

WEBB: Pretty devastated, I've got to be honest. It's the hope that kills you. You know, we didn't expect to get to this stage we got to, to the semi-final. You know, the Croatian team, they deserved it. You know, I wish both them and France well for the final. But moreso, I obviously wish the referee team a smooth and successful journey on what will be the biggest night of their life. I wish England was there, but if the referees do well, I'll be a happy man.

MARTIN: Very referee-like, if I may say.

(LAUGHTER)

WEBB: You never lose it.

MARTIN: That's Howard Webb. He refereed the 2010 World Cup final. He's now general manager of the Professional Referee Organization. Mr. Webb, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WEBB: Thanks, Michel.

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