Friday 13 June ~
It took ten minutes for Peter Drury to say what none of us was thinking as we watched Germany v Croatia. “Of course this would have been the day when the country stopped as England faced Germany,” he speculated wildly, conveniently ignoring the fact that by the end of qualifying it was Russia’s place we were chasing in the tournament, not Croatia’s. As it was, in beating Germany Croatia showed the fluidity and cohesion that England had lacked in qualifying, making the question less “Why aren’t we watching England v Germany?” and more “Why would we want to be?”.
But for those that can’t enjoy foreign football without being aware of some sort of trail back to the English game, enter Howard Webb, officiating his first game at an international tournament as Austria took on Poland. With Austria a minute or so away from joining Switzerland as the worst pair of hosts since Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood at the Brits, Webb gave a penalty for shirt-pulling as a free-kick in floated into the Poland box. As a referee, it can never be a good sign when your decision proves so surprising that the teams neither celebrate nor protest but simply look at you quizzically.
It has become ingrained in football that when a set-piece is played into the penalty area the defensive team can get away with bullying attackers like younger brothers, so it is a shock to the system when the laws are enforced as they should be. It is easy to forget that the penalty box is just another area of the pitch rather than a place in which attackers really need to earn their fouls before hearing a whistle, just as it is easy to forget that goalkeepers should not be awarded a free-kick every time they fumble crosses with attackers nearby.
As a victory for refereeing to the rules rather than received wisdom, Webb will hope this does for his profile what a well judged full-time whistle did for Clive Thomas at the 1978 World Cup, though you would suspect that a lack of Thomas’s charisma and thirst for attention may scupper that one. Still, the reviews are in and they are good: “Courageous” (Guardian) “Had a good game, let play flow” (Telegraph), “Confidence to make a decisive impact” (Times). After glorying in Graham Poll’s humiliation on the international stage two years ago are the British press about to give referees a fair chance? Or are we just clinging to English success wherever we can find it this summer?