Just eight people alive have refereed a World Cup final. More people have orbited the moon.
So statistically speaking, Howard Webb had a better chance of becoming a Supreme Court justice than he did of getting the call to work the last game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“I got to know that I was doing the final on Thursday, and the game took place on Sunday,” Webb remembered. “I’m quite amazed that I managed to sleep at night because the game is so huge. You know that everybody that you know in the world is going to be watching. Everybody who’s connected to you, personally and professionally, is going to have eyes on that game.”
Another name will be added to that list next month when a referee is picked for the final of this year’s World Cup in Qatar. And this time the selection could be historic for another reason as well since three of the 36 center referees chosen to work the tournament are women.
Salima Mukansanga of Rwanda, Yoshimi Yamashita of Japan and Stephanie Frappart of France, who handled the 2019 Women’s World Cup final, are the first female referees ever invited to a men’s World Cup. Three women assistant referees, including American Kathryn Nesbitt and Mexico’s Karen Díaz Medina, will also work the tournament, which kicks off Nov. 20.
For Webb, who has spent the past five years campaigning for female officials as general manager of the New York-based Professional Referee Organization (PRO), that news was almost as exciting as the phone call he got in South Africa.
“It’s fabulous, isn’t it?” he said. “And why not? Why can’t officials of either gender be able to officiate at the highest level? It shouldn’t need to be a conversation, but because it’s not traditionally been the case, it’s still in fact common. Thankfully it’s tracking in the right direction.”
Ismail Elfath is the only American center official invited to Qatar and that, too, was noteworthy because it marks the third consecutive World Cup during which a U.S. referee has been selected.
“The word honor, for sure, is up there,” Elfath said of his first World Cup selection. “But also responsibility. It’s quite a platform that you get when you are a World Cup referee in terms of passing on the torch, teaching, educating, mentoring.
“It takes a village to get someone to this point. And for me, the best way to pay them back is to get here at the World Cup.”
Webb, who is leaving PRO, the organization responsible for managing referee programs for professional leagues in the U.S. and Canada, to take a similar position in his native England, said he has seen a change in U.S. officials, both in their work and how that work is perceived in the soccer world at large. That’s why a record five Americans — Elfath, Nesbitt, assistant referees Kyle Atkins and Corey Parker and video assistant referee Armando Villarreal — will be in Qatar.
“They’ve shown the world how good U.S. officials can be,” said Webb, 51. “I think it’s the legacy of investment, going back to 2012 when the Professional Referee Organization was created with some foresight on behalf of U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer. [It] allowed officials to become professional or semi-professional and focus a lot more time and energy into that role. It’s just a higher level of professionalism.”
Elfath, 40, who was born in Morocco but moved to the U.S. when he was 18, exemplifies that growth. An MLS referee since 2012, he was voted the league’s top official this season for the second time in three years, then ended the campaign by working last Saturday’s chippy MLS Cup final between LAFC and the Philadelphia Union. But he didn’t get his FIFA badge until 2016, making his ascent to the World Cup a quick climb.
World Cup officials, who won’t be given their first World Cup assignments until 72 hours before kickoff, are evaluated after each group-stage game, with those who score well moving on to work a match in the round of 16. And just like the teams, if they continue to excel, they will continue to advance, with the best official working the final, something no American has never done.
Elfath would like to be the first.
“I would fail myself and everyone that has supported me to just go there and say I’m going to participate,” he said. “My goal is to have the best World Cup I can have. I’m going to put all my effort into putting myself in position to be selected for the deepest game possible, which is the final.”
Webb’s final proved bittersweet. He handed out a record 14 yellow cards, including two to Johnny Heitinga of the Netherlands, the second coming with nine minutes left in extra time. Seven minutes after Heitinga’s expulsion, Andrés Iniesta scored the only goal in Spain’s 1-0 win.
But Webb also missed a red card for Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong, who drove his studs into the chest of Spain’s Xavi Alonso midway through the first half. The TV audience of more 910 million saw the play repeatedly in their living rooms, but in the days before video review, Webb was among the few people watching the game who missed what happened.
“You know your career is going to be defined in certain moments and certain games,” Webb said. “We’re a little bit like goalkeepers in that respect in that you can have a really good game, but you do tend to remember it for individual situations that are seen as errors.
“The unique position we have is that if we do make a mistake, it does impact somebody else. It impacts one of the teams.”
In the end, the missed call didn’t decide the World Cup because Alonso and Spain won. But it did make Webb, with his distinctive bald pate and fierce facial expressions, one of the most recognized officials in the world, recognition he never wanted. That’s a lesson he’s likely to share with the PRO referees in Qatar.
“You just want to come out of the game in a clean way,” he said “with, ideally, nobody talking about you as the officials.”