It is in a referee’s job description to decide what is fair and what is not. Howard Webb was, therefore, an obvious choice to be on the panel to help decide the latest FIFA Fair Play Award. The Englishman, who hung up his whistle after officiating at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, took charge of the biggest games in world football during a 20-year refereeing career – most famously as the man in the middle for the 2010 World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain. “To be part of the panel that’s choosing the FIFA Fair Play Award feels fantastic,” Webb told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I’m on a panel with some really famous and well-respected individuals who’ve had fantastic careers in football, people who understand the meaning of Fair Play. To be selected to choose which act of Fair Play is the best from this year is a big honour for me. It’s a fantastic thing to be involved in.” Webb is indeed among esteemed company, with the former referee joined on the panel by footballing luminaries Gabriel Batistuta, Marta and Vladimir Petkovic – as well as Adolf Ogi, the former President of Switzerland and Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace for the United Nations. All will have their own unique view on what constitutes Fair Play, from a playing, coaching and spectating point of view. How would Webb describe it? “It’s about doing things in the right way,” Webb said. “There’s not a lot of satisfaction in winning in a way that’s not fair, that’s not in the spirit of the game. When I think about Fair Play, I think about situations where players have made a decision to do something that shows respect. It’s not just about winning at all costs.”
As well as his various roles undertaken since retiring from refereeing, including television punditry and as a FIFA Refereeing Instructor, Webb is also a fan – supporting Rotherham United in England’s second tier. The Best FIFA Football Awards have seen supporters around the globe offered a unique opportunity to take part in voting for various awards, including the Puskás Award and (alongside coaches, players and media) The Best Player and Coach awards, something Webb endorses. “I think the fact that FIFA have given an opportunity to fans to vote for who is the best recognises the importance of fans in the eyes of FIFA,” Webb said. “Football is all about the players on the pitch who create the spectacle, but also the fans in the stadium who create the atmosphere and also those at home who watch on TV. I think fans will enjoy having their chance to say who they think is The Best, along with the coaches, players and the media, they will have an opportunity to contribute too. So, whoever is voted The Best will know they are the best in the eyes of everyone in the footballing community.” Despite refereeing for over two decades, Webb does sometimes find it difficult to restrain himself when watching his favourite teams, Rotherham and England. “When I’m watching football, like any fan, I do sometimes shout at the referee or at the TV screen,” Webb admitted, with a grin. “Not in an abusive or offensive way, but in an emotional way. Sometimes, I’ll react when I think the referee has made a mistake. I’ll watch the situation back later and realise that I was wrong and the referee was right – that’s normally the case! I think it’s OK for fans to be emotional and to react, as long as it’s done in a way that’s not abusive.”
The former referee admits himself that he has made errors, including one particularly high profile moment that will live long in his memory – and those of all fans who watched it. In the spirit of Fair Play, Webb admits his mistake. “The one that stands out the most was in the FIFA World Cup Final in South Africa,” Webb said. “The decision not to send Nigel De Jong off in the first half. He made a tackle with a high foot. As a referee, you find the best position available and you make a decision based on what you see and what you know, and you use your team and the information for me wasn't enough to send him off. I didn’t have the best view and I took the decision that seemed right at the time, but looking back, it was a clear red card offence. That is one that will live with me forever.”
No-one will be in any doubt that, with his many years of experience, having seen the broad spectrum of Fair Play throughout his career, Webb – along with his esteemed peers on the panel – will make the right decision when selecting this year’s winner of the FIFA Fair Play Award.