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England’s refs out to win back reputation at World Cup

2:35 PM IST 04/11/22
michael oliver
The Three Lions will be hoping to claim World Cup glory in Qatar, but two English referees will also be hoping for a successful tournament

England are finally starting to deliver on the international stage.

The women's European Championship victory in 2021 was the first major trophy to come home since Geoff Hurst and co. famously blew West Germany away in extra time at Wembley in 1966, and the UEFA Under-19 Championship is also currently in English hands thanks to two more extra-time goals in a final (this time against Israel) earlier this year.

Even the men’s senior team has woken up from decades of slumber to reach a semi-final and a final in the two most recent major tournaments - their best results in a generation.

There’s pressure on Gareth Southgate and his charges to - at an absolute minimum - match those performances in Qatar: The best betting sites in the UK rate the Three Lions as fourth favourites to take home the FIFA World Cup Trophy this Christmas.

But they aren’t the only Englishmen who will be relishing the opportunity to deliver their best major tournament results in decades - this is also a big moment for England’s referees.

Michael Oliver and Anthony Taylor have both been Premier League refereeing mainstays for a number of years and are also experienced Champions League officials, having taken charge of 26 and 28 matches respectively in Europe’s top club competition.

However, both will be World Cup debutants this winter and the spotlight may be focused on them more often than their colleagues from other nations given the somewhat chequered recent history of English refs at major tournaments.

The 2018 tournament in Russia was the first FIFA World Cup since 1938 without a single refereeing representative from the United Kingdom (let alone England), while the sole Brit with whistle and cards in the previous two tournaments was England’s Howard Webb.

Webb is widely considered to be one of England’s all-time top match officials and the two games he took charge of at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (Colombia’s 2-1 victory over Ivory Coast in the group stage and Brazil’s extra time win against Chile in the quarter finals) were completed without much controversy.

However, a decision made by the Rotherham native in the 2010 World Cup final is up there with the most controversial calls in World Cup history. In the 28th minute of the match between Netherlands and Spain, Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong stretched to reach a high ball and connected studs-first high on the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Slow-motion replays and still images often make challenges look a lot worse than they actually were at full speed but this one looked like a shocker in real-time, too. Webb subsequently said his positioning was to blame and that he was ‘gutted beyond belief to miss a red-card offence ina World Cup final ’.

While Spain ultimately went on to win the match after extra time, such an incident in a game of this magnitude was a blot on the copybook of UK officials (and probably sped up the development and adoption of today’s VAR systems by several years).

That copybook already featured a fairly significant World Cup blot from the 2006 tournament in Germany, courtesy of another highly experienced referee, Graham Poll.

Towards the end of a fiery clash between Australia and Croatia to decide the runner-up spot in Group F, Poll had already dismissed Croatia defender Dario Šimić and Socceroos midfielder Brett Emerton for second bookable offences. In the 90th minute, it was Josip Šimunić’s turn to commit a foul worthy of a second yellow.

Poll duly dished out the cheese but inexplicably failed to then produce the mandatory red card for the Croatian. Like Webb’s mistake in 2014, this gaff didn’t impact the final outcome (Australia went through and Šimunić was in fact shown a third yellow after the final whistle). However, it did greatly impact Poll’s reputation and he was sent home.

Pundits in the UK make a living by scrutinising the decisions of Messrs. Oliver and Taylor on a weekly basis in the Premier League. They are used to the big occasions but the World Cup is the biggest of them all and the responsibility now falls on them to resurrect England’s refereeing reputation.

Both will be hoping that their matches this winter are remembered for the football rather than the officiating and perhaps neither will mind if they are not chosen to referee the final if it means England are playing in it.

Without wanting to tempt fate, the last time that two English referees were selected to officiate at the same World Cup tournament was… 1966. Maybe it’s time for England to deliver again.