Perhaps it was a fitting end to a fitting tournament.
In a World Cup that witnessed one bad call after another, where FIFA President Sepp Blatter had to apologize for a pair of mistakes, the final ended on a dreary note.
Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0 after extra time on Sunday to claim their first-ever World Cup trophy. But South Africa 2010 will not be remembered for Spain’s historic win alone. Rather, the officiating has left its long-lasting impression on the tournament and has tainted the beautiful game.
What Went Right
English referee Howard Webb handed out an inordinate number of yellow cards. In fact, Webb’s 14 bookings were the most-ever for a World Cup, and that record was set before the hour mark when John Heitinga, who later was sent off after second yellow card, was booked in the 57th minute.
Not all of them were bad cards, though. Both sides came out and dealt each other harsh blows early on. Xabi Alonso’s kick in the chest early on was perhaps the roughest of the yellow cards but the two sides took turns taking the brunt of the damage.
Also, there were no phantom calls late in regulation or early in the extra-time session. That came later, though.
What Went Wrong
This final won’t go down as one of the most beautiful finals ever, and while the players took their turns hacking one another, the parade of yellow cards was simply too much. While the early cards were mostly spot-on, the players kept trying to bait Webb, and the Englishman complied with card after card for questionable calls. Heitinga’s first yellow card was perhaps Webb’s initial breaking point. Heitinga knocked David Villa down from behind in the middle of the field, but Webb let play continue. Villa lay on the ground as the ball was passed around but Webb did not motion for advantage. Well after the initial contact, Webb then showed a card to Heitinga. Had it been a proper booking, Webb should have immediately called for a foul - Spain’s possession there did not necessarily warrant advantage - and a card should immediately have been pulled, but Webb seemed to have been mulling it over and may have been influenced by the Spanish protests.
Arjen Robben had a late breakaway and was nearly brought down from behind by Carles Puyol but Webb apparently let Robben continue with the advantage. However, enough contact was made that there should have been a call there. The contact led Robben to lose control of the ball after Puyol threw his arms at Robben before hacking wildly at the Bayern Munich man. Robben, though, earned his yellow card for dissent shortly thereafter.
Webb fell apart late in the game, though. Andres Iniesta, who will forever be a Spanish hero, resorted to cheap schoolboy tactics. Iniesta flopped badly on some contact but Webb bit. First, Iniesta ran towards the penalty area with the ball at his feet. Heitinga was beaten on the play and put his arm on Iniesta’s shoulders. Iniesta appeared to have let himself fall on the play, unless contact alone was enough to knock Iniesta over. Heitinga was not only called for the foul but was carded and sent off.
Then, Iniesta fell after Gregory van der Wiel lunged at him. Television replays appeared to show no contact at all from van der Wiel but Iniesta hit the ground and Webb not only called the foul but booked van der Wiel.
What Can Be Done?
That will be a question many will ponder until FIFA does something to correct the situation. FIFA officials have already said changes were underway, as FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke told the BBC that this will be “the final World Cup with the current refereeing system.”
It’s too late for England (victims of a blown call when Frank Lampard’s shot went across the goal line against Germany), Mexico (who were scored on by a player in a clear offside position) and the other teams who were victims of bad calls.
FIFA, though, need to catch up with the rest of the world and implement some changes. The human element will always be present in the soccer, but to not use things such as video replay and perhaps add a second match official or at the very least an official along the end line is removing common sense form the formula.
How many other World Cup games will be tainted because of FIFA’s insistence to hold onto an antiquated system? If the answer is more than zero, it will be a travesty.
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