With the World Cup around the corner and no British referees involved for the first time in 80 years, I take a look at some of the more well-known figures of British World Cup refereeing. I’ve chosen five for being well known and being involved in either controversial or groundbreaking moments in World Cup football.
#1 Ken Aston – Chile 1962
Famously appointed to referee the Chile V Italy group match in the 1962 World Cup, Aston’s legacy lasted far beyond that match.
The full circumstances of the game can be recalled in more detail here. The basic backdrop was a game played following an Italian press assault of the people of Chile and its country. By the time the game was played, there was no going back on the hostile atmosphere created.
Ken Aston replaced the original referee who was a Spaniard after Italy made a complaint about possible bias. The linesmen were a Mexican and an American (Leo Goldstein), the latter would become a central character in the later controversy.
The game kicked off and within 12 seconds, the first foul came and the first sending off was after 4 minutes. The offender, Italian Giorgio Ferrini refused to leave the field and had to be escorted from the filed some ten minutes later by armed guard. Chilean provocation and violence on both sides continued for the rest of the game. Aston struggled to keep control with the second sending off, just before halftime. Mario David, reacting to Chilean, Leonel Sanchez, who had left hooked him minutes earlier, without being booked. Italy were down to ten men.
The violence continued throughout the second half with Italy hanging on with nine men and police intervention necessary at times. Sanchez continued his crusade with a further left hook flooring Italian captain Humberto Maschio, who suffered a broken nose, yet Aston again failed to act claiming he had his back turned to the incident. Crucially, linesman, Leo Goldstein did not flag.
Chile eventually took the lead in the 73rd minute with Jaime Ramirez. Jorge Toro scored a late 2nd goal. How Sanchez lasted the full game is anyone’s guess. Chile won 2-0. After the game, Aston claimed he did not want to take the easy way out by abandoning the match. He was concerned about the safety of himself and the Italians, therefore let the match run its course. No injury time was added.
Criticism towards Aston was swift and came from all directions. FIFA president, Sir Stanley Rous was urged to clean up the game quickly. This appeared to be talk only as Ferrini was banned for just one game and both David and Sanchez escaped reprisals. The British press was equally scathing, announcing it as a disgrace amongst a raft of criticism. Aston did not referee another game in that World Cup due to an Achilles tendon injury but his refereeing and particularly his World Cup legacy continued.
Aston was an innovator and early on in his career, Aston had been responsible for designing and being the first to wear the traditional black with white trim referee’s uniform in 1946. In 1947 he introduced different coloured (red & yellow) linesman’s flags instead of the home team’s colours. Post World Cup he was appointed to FIFA’s referee’s committee, chairing it for four of those years. He was in charge of referee’s for the 1966, 1970 and 1974 World Cup’s.
His further innovations included the introduction of the substitute referee in 1966, which was the forerunner to the fourth official. He was also instrumental in the introduction of official standards for ball pressure and the number board used for substitutions, which he introduced in 1974. An interesting story surrounds his innovation of red and yellow cards for cautions and sending off. Following the England V Argentina quarter-final in 1966, Jack Charlton contacted Aston as he had read in the press he had been cautioned during the match. As Aston was driving from Wembley to Lancaster Gate, he stopped his car at a junction and observed the traffic lights. This occupied his mind throughout the evening and when he arrived home he discussed it with his wife. She disappeared into another room for a few minutes before returning with two cards, shaped to fit into Aston’s pocket. Yellow and red cards were born and used for the first time in the 1970 World Cup.
Ken Aston was awarded the MBE in 1997 and passed away in 2001 aged 86.
#2 Jack Taylor – West Germany 1974
Jack Taylor’s biggest moment as the World Cup final of 1974 in Munich. Arguably England’s greatest ever referee, his first big game came in the 1966 FA Cup final between Everton and Sheffield Wednesday. He took charge of the Sweden V Italy group game in Mexico in 1970 and the following year the European Cup Final between Ajax and Panathinaikos. He was awarded the World Cup final ahead of others including Scotland’s Bob Davidson.
He is best known for awarding the first ever penalty in a World Cup final but before the game started he realised the ground staff hadn’t placed any corner flags. Taylor later suggested this had released some of the tension of the occasion and prepared him for what was ahead.
Within the first minute, with Johann Cruyff bursting into the penalty area and felled by Uli Hoeness, Taylor didn’t hesitate in awarding that first penalty. An interesting side issue to this was as the ball was placed on the penalty spot, and the crowd quiet, the German captain, Franz Beckenbauer approached Taylor and said to him “You’re an Englishman”. Neeskens converted.
After 26 minutes Taylor awarded a further penalty, this time to West Germany when Holzenbein went down under a challenge from Jansen. Paul Breitner converted. Not only had Taylor given the first penalty in a World Cup final, but he’d showed his character by awarding a second. There was criticism aimed at Taylor later, suggesting he had given the second penalty to even things up. This, however, was not the case. Gerd Muller scored what was to be the winner in the 43rd minute, his last goal in his last game for the Germans. Cruyff was booked for arguing with Taylor as they left the pitch for halftime. Taylor later said about the World Cup final that “it’s ninety minutes that changed my life”. It certainly was. He was awarded an OBE in 1975 and after refereeing around the world and hung up his whistle in 1979.
As many referees can identify with, he wanted to be a professional footballer, for his club Wolverhampton Wanderers but when he realised he wasn’t good enough, turned to refereeing. He was the first referee to be inducted into the FIFA hall of fame and in 2013, a year after his death, he was inducted into the English Football hall of fame.
#3 Clive Thomas – Argentina 1978
Clive “the book” Thomas was the most well known British referee of his era and was never far away from controversy. These days, referees are fully paid professionals and well known due to the proliferation of live football on our screens but in the 1970’s and early 1980’s live football was confined, mainly to Cup Finals and International football. It’s said a good referee is inconspicuous, despite the constant scrutiny. Thomas was never far from the news.
On Norwich City’s books as a 16-year-old, Thomas had to give up the game due to an ankle injury. He was persuaded to take up refereeing and so began his career. His first major controversy was in the 1977 FA Cup Semi-final. With Everton and Liverpool level at 2-2, he disallowed a perfectly good Everton winner minutes from the end of time. He disallowed it for an “infringement” despite one never occurring. In 1981 in the League Cup Final, with the game goalless, he allowed the 117th minute Liverpool goal, despite the ball passing over the prostrate Sammy Lee, clearly offside and in front of the keeper. Even the linesman flagging for the offence couldn’t persuade him to disallow the goal.
His most high profile incident happened in the 1978 World Cup. He had already refereed two group games in the 1974 tournament and at the age of 41 considered to be at his peak. Brazil were playing Sweden in a group 3 game at Mar del Plata, with Sweden taking the lead in the 37th minute through Sjoberg. Brazil equalised just before halftime through Reinaldo and the score stayed the same until 90 minutes were up.
In stoppage time, Brazil were awarded a corner and right back, Nelinho was about to take it. The ball was placed but Nelhino was asked to move it by the linesman. As the corner made its way into the area, Zico rose to head home only for Thomas to disallow the goal to the incredulity of the Brazilian players. Thomas had blown for full time as the ball was about to cross the line.
Clive Thomas later claimed Zico was too late, that the time was up and Nelinho had taken too long over the corner. Prior to the World Cup, he had refused to sign a contract telling referees not to speak to the press, he refused. He was sent home by FIFA after the game. Interestingly, had the goal stood, Brazil would have topped their group, leading to the ultimate group of death in the next phase. This would have consisted of Brazil, Holland, Italy and West Germany. Some Brazilians suggesting it would have been them meeting Argentina in the final, and a different result. Who knows?
In his autobiography, Thomas suggested that the decision had dogged him ever since. During an interview with “Wales online” years later he said that he coped because he honestly and truthfully believed what he did was absolutely correct.
Clive Thomas now lives in Porthcawl, Wales.
#4 Graham Poll – Germany 2006
Graham Poll went to the World Cup in 2006 as England’s representative. A man never too far from controversy, he was regarded as one of England’s top referee. He was regarded after this tournament for a different reason. It could be argued that Poll’s most controversial decision up to that point was the disallowing of an Everton goal as it crossed the line at the end of time added on against Liverpool. As the end of the three minutes added was approaching with Poll anticipating the ball would be around the middle of the pitch as the three minutes elapsed, Liverpool keeper Sander Westerveld, kicked the ball out of his hands. As he did, the ball struck Everton player Don Hutchison in the back and as the ball rolled over the line, Poll blew his whistle. Everton were livid and Poll unmoved. Years later Poll would admit this as a mistake.
In a group F game, between Australia and Croatia, Stuttgart, June 22nd, 2006. The decider for the group runner-up, Poll was the referee. Maybe he was showing what was to come when he blew the whistle to start the game and then brought the players back to kick off again. Maybe when Croatian defender, Stjepan Tomas handled in the first half and was not yellow carded or Tomas’ further handball in the area later in the game and not given either, we should have wondered. Australia were 1-2 down and the penalty would have come in handy.
Australia equalised but then as the game reached its climax, Poll would make an unprecedented mistake. Josep Simunic had already been booked for a foul on Harry Kewell when in the 90th minute, he was booked again. No red card was issued. On full time, Australia had what they thought was the winning goal disallowed as it was crossing the goal line as the full-time whistle went and they were furious. In the resulting melee, however, Simunic approached Poll and pushed him. This resulted in a third yellow card and followed by a red. It is interesting to note that neither assistants, Sharp and Turner (now there’s a great name for a double act) had noticed the blunder at the time.
Ultimately, Australia’s draw ensured they got 2nd place in the group but they would have had a good case for an appeal had they lost. One suggestion for the turmoil is that Poll confused Simunic with an Australian player as he is Australian born and speaks with an Australian accent. This has been unsubstantiated. Poll did send off a Player from each team during the game, which were both justified, but they won’t be remembered. Poll was sent home from the World Cup and with it went his dream of refereeing the World Cup final.
Graham Poll is now a pundit and newspaper columnist.
#5 Howard Webb – South Africa 2010
Spain V Holland 2010 and the pinnacle of Howard Webb’s career. The FIFA World Cup final, Soccer City, Johannesburg, 11th July 2010. Howard Webb himself considered it as the ultimate honour. It would be known at the end as the “dirtiest final in World Cup history”, which was previously the 1986 final between Argentina and West Germany, with 6 yellow cards. I was surprised to find this out as I’d always regarded the bad-tempered affair between the same sides in the 1990 final as worse, but with only 4 yellow and two reds, apparently, it isn’t.
The sheer stats make for incredible reading given it was the showpiece of world football. Five yellow cards by halftime, Nine after 90 minutes (One ever ten minutes), Fourteen by the end of extra time and one red card. Holland had clearly decided that they would intimidate favourites, Spain by whatever means possible. The cards came at regular periods throughout the first half and sound like a hall of fame. Robin Van Persie; Puyol; De Jong; Van Bommel; Ramos all before halftime. Second half, Heitinga; Van Bronckhorst; Capdevila; Robben; Van der Wiel, then Heitinga saw a second yellow and red in extra time followed by yellows for Van de Wiel, Mathijsen; Iniesta; and finally Xavi.
Of course, the Spaniards gave as good as they got but it’s interesting to note that the only two Dutch players who were on from the start until the end and didn’t receive yellow cards were the keeper, Stekelenberg and Wesley Sneijder. Howard Webb struggled throughout to maintain order and was later criticised for failing to produce a red card when De Jong planted his studs in Alonso’s chest. It was argued Puyol should have received a second yellow when he pulled back Arjen Robben in the second half.
Spain eventually scored through Iniesta in the 116th minute for a 1-0 deserved victory. The Dutch were critical of the referee at the end especially the manager, Bert Van Marwijk. The players surrounded Webb at the end and the Dutch crowd booed him. It appeared that Holland were determined to win by any means. The two teams almost appeared to be daring for the referee to send them off. When two teams of players decide to play in this way, it can be difficult sometimes to see what a referee could have done to stop it.
Howard Webb was awarded an MBE in 2010 after refereeing both the Champions League and World Cup finals in the same year. He retired from refereeing in 2014 and currently spearheads the implementation of video technology in Major League Soccer.