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Sunday, July 11, 2010
Blame the Dutch for gooning it up

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG -- Howard Webb, the English referee responsible for Sunday night's World Cup final, went into his pocket for yellow cards 14 times -- more than doubling the previous record of six set during the tumultuous 1986 final between West Germany and Argentina.

The scary thing is, Webb's only mistake was that he didn't give out more.

After a tournament marred by poor officiating, Webb will undoubtedly catch his share of grief in the coming days, particularly from Dutch supporters. The Netherlands received nine of the cards, including a pair for John Heitinga, who was sent off in extra time, essentially finishing his team's chances. But the Dutch deserved nearly all their bookings and were lucky not to have been given more. They played like thugs.

Robin van Persie got off with a warning in the opening minutes when he might have been given a card. (He did receive the game's first yellow at the 15-minute mark after he crashed into Joan Capdevila.)

Mark van Bommel, who has a reputation for dirty play -- and that's putting it mildly -- easily could have picked up a pair himself. His first came in the 22nd minute after an unnecessary takedown of Andres Iniesta; he miraculously avoided a second for the rest of the game.

Perhaps most brutally, Nigel De Jong dug his cleats into Xabi Alonso's ribs in the 28th minute with a flying kick -- another incredibly dangerous play from the tournament's most reckless player. Many referees would have given him a straight red, and nobody, including the most virulent Dutch fan, would have had cause to complain.

Normally, so many early cards will calm the proceedings. Webb, who has a reputation for calling a close game, was obviously not going to stop giving them out. The players had to choose to play a different game; they had to abandon their goon tactics and start kicking the ball instead of each other. That they didn't is their fault, not Webb's.

The Englishman did his best to keep the fouls even; at halftime, the Dutch had three against Spain's two. Eventually, though, his job became impossible. The Dutch, especially, continued to play an ugly, awful game, and the Spanish occasionally stooped to their level.

Somehow, the players conspired to make Webb look restrained. Wesley Sneijder could have been booked for a swipe at Pedro as well as for his incessant hollering at the officials. Arjen Robben, who ultimately did get a card in the 84th minute for dissent, also could have been booked for diving, or for taking a stab at Iker Casillas, or for slotting home a ball long after he was whistled offside, or for …

Even Maarten Stekelenburg, the usually mild-mannered Dutch keeper, got into the act, pawing at Fernando Torres late in the game.

Webb missed that one; he wasn't anything like perfect. He gave the Dutch just enough opening for them to complain, which they no doubt will. A free kick that clearly deflected out off the Spanish wall was inexplicably ruled a goal kick; Iniesta could have been booked for a second-half revenge challenge on Sneijder.

But given the night, given the game that for some reason he was cursed to officiate, Webb did well. That seems ridiculous to say -- looking at the match report and seeing 14 yellow cards at the bottom of the page seems almost indefensible. It's just so far off the charts.

Again, however, it's not Webb's job to justify his actions Sunday night. It's up to the players to justify theirs.

A World Cup final, the biggest game of their lives, and they made Johannesburg's littered streets look clean by comparison.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.