At the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the focus is always on unearthing the next Maradona or Messi. And so it should be. However, while this central aim is both understandable and laudable, this tournament's reputation for developing the stars of tomorrow does not begin and end with its players. Howard Webb knows that only too well. In 2010, the Englishman took charge of the biggest game of all, refereeing a FIFA World Cup Final that ended with Iker Casillas lifting a trophy secured by Andres Iniesta's decisive extra time goal. Both those players are graduates of the U-20 World Cup, and so too is Webb. That they should have progressed to share the beautiful game's ultimate stage is, he believes, is no accident. Now Webb is back at FIFA's youth showpiece, only this time as a teacher rather than as a pupil. Having retired from active officiating last year, the 43-year-old is in New Zealand on his first assignment as a FIFA referee instructor, and is relishing the challenge. In an exclusive interview, the esteemed former referee spoke to FIFA.com about the transition to his new role, the importance of the U-20 World Cup in developing young officials and the recent innovations in the rules they enforce.
- Howard Webb: Well, as you know, I retired from active officiating last year at the World Cup in Brazil. But before leaving that tournament I was approached by Massimo Busacca, the head of FIFA's refereeing department. He told me that he'd like me to stay involved and that, if I was set on retiring, he was keen to utilise my experience as an instructor. I jumped at that chance. I became a qualified FIFA referee instructor in the early part of this year, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It's wonderful for me still to be involved because, looking back on my career, the real highlights were always these FIFA tournaments. I was lucky enough to go to six of them - two World Cups, two Confederations Cups, a U-20 World Cup and a U-17 World Cup - and I loved all of them. So to have the chance to come along here and pass on my experience to these younger, developing referees has been fantastic, and a great honour. Make no mistake though: I'm still learning when it comes to this role. Even though I was a high-profile referee at the top level for many years, I'm still learning my skills as an instructor. I'm watching the more experienced guys here - guys who've been around this role for a long time, honing their skills - and I'm learning as I go.
- Do you feel that the young referees are responding well to you?
- I do, and I like to think that I've had a positive influence here. I think they appreciate too that I'm only recently off the pitch. I certainly hope they've enjoyed having me around and listening to my experiences. I've definitely learned a lot, and I very much hope it's not the last time I'm involved in one of these tournaments with FIFA.
- Some footballers find the move into coaching very natural, whereas others immediately find that they are lost without the thrill of playing. Is it similar for referees? And do you miss being out there on the field?
- I'll be honest: I found it harder to adjust than I had expected it would be. That said, I've no regrets - I still think it was the right time to finish. But it gives you such a buzz being out there in the middle of great football occasions, with the responsibility of controlling them. When those kind of games go well, it does give you a big high, and replacing that isn't easy. But being involved here goes some way towards doing that because I get a genuine thrill from being on the training ground with these young officials and talking through match situations in the classroom. The big emphasis, the big focus, is consistency. We have 21 referee teams from around the world here and the idea is that, no matter where you're from, you should approach the games in the same way. And I must say that seeing the manner in which they've taken on board the messages, and also seeing the level of officiating they've achieved, has given me a real buzz. It's not quite the same as being out there yourself, but it's the next best thing.
- You mention the level of officiating at this tournament, and there has been praise for that in the media here, which is fairly unusual to see. That must be of great satisfaction to everyone involved.
- It's been good to see. Credit for that goes to the players and team management too. Every one of the 24 teams had a visit from one of the referee instructors before the tournament, going through topical issues and areas where the referees have been instructed to be tough on. They took on those messages really well. But the referees also deserve great credit and I've heard the praise on TV myself. We make sure to pass that on to the guys because it's always nice in any profession to know that your good work is being recognised.
- How important are tournaments like this for developing the next batch of top-level referees?
- Hugely important. This competition is often seen as the tournament of future football stars, but I know from my experiences that it's also the tournament of future top referees. Many of the players on show here will feature at the next couple of World Cups and the same applies to the match officials. For almost every one of them, this has been their first FIFA tournament and it's a different experience, being away from home for four weeks, living with the referee team and being surrounded by the tournament day in, day out. It takes some getting used to, but this will be massively valuable for their development. Speaking personally, I was involved in the U-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007 and three years later there I was, refereeing the World Cup Final in South Africa. So I've said to the guys: 'Amazing things are possible'. Who knows which of them will be refereeing the biggest games in 2018 and 2022? If they can keep their feet on the ground, and continue learning and developing, the sky's the limit.
- You mention Canada 2007. What are your memories of that experience?
- I have to be honest and say it wasn't until I got there that I realised what a big event the U-20 World Cup is. I remember being taken aback by the quality, the intensity and just the whole experience of being away for four weeks, taking charge of games involving the likes of Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero. I was lucky enough to have five games there, including a semi-final, and I'm sure the officials here will find the same as I did: that it's a springboard towards future success. It gets them into the tournament way of thinking in terms of the key messages we're giving them and managing a game involving two teams from completely different parts of the world. It's something we as referees are not exposed to on a week-to-week basis and it's a great learning experience and step forward in your development.
- The game is always evolving and there have been fairly recent developments in officiating, with the adoption of goal-line technology and the use of the vanishing spray. What have you made of these innovations?
- When the vanishing spray was first brought in ahead of the World Cup, I must admit that I was really doubtful. I thought, 'Do I really need this?' But it became very quickly apparent to me that it added to the game in a positive way, that players responded well to having a defined line, and that it helped our management of free-kick situations. It has undoubtedly been a success. As for goal-line technology, that too has been an overwhelming triumph. Speak to any referee and they'll tell you that it makes their life easier. Logistically and financially, there's an understanding it can't be used everywhere. But it's been a positive addition and I'm sure it is now there to stay at future World Cups. Other technological additions are always debated but it's a difficult one to achieve without changing the basic way the game is played. Anything that makes us more accurate, we as referees would gladly look at. But we have to be careful and remember that the game is very successful in its current format. Any future changes should always be made with the aim of maintaining the basic fabric of football as a high-tempo spectacle.