Top soccer ref reveals struggle with OCD
Referee Howard Webb is shown at a Champions League soccer match in Porto, Portugal, on Oct. 1, 2013. (AP / Armando Franca)
Simon Haydon, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, October 19, 2016 11:49AM EDT
LONDON -- In his changing room before the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, referee Howard Webb wasn't comfortable in his blue shirt.
So he took it off.
Put it back on.
Took it off.
Put it back on.
Did this six times.
Moments from the most important game of his life, Webb was struck down by another bout of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition in which a person has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour.
Webb kept the condition secret throughout a career that saw him referee the Champions League final and World Cup final in the same year, fearing the harsh world of soccer would mark him down as mentally unsound.
He has revealed the condition in an autobiography, and told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he didn't want to jeopardize his career. "You have to give the impression of being an assured and confident person," he said.
In Johannesburg, as the Netherlands and Spain prepared for the World Cup final, Webb was trying to get changed. He wrote: "I reached into my kit bag and grabbed my azure blue Adidas shirt. However as I pulled it on, a negative thought invaded my head, my anxiety levels rose and I took the top off again to erase that niggling feeling.
"In the end it took me about six attempts to keep that bloody shirt on my back."
His mood wasn't improved by what happened on the field. In a dirty game full of nasty fouls, the ex-policeman showed the yellow card nine times and the red card once, a record for a World Cup final. He also missed a vicious kick to the chest of an opponent by Netherlands player Nigel de Jong.
"There are some that are unrefereeable and that was one of them," he said about the biggest game in global soccer.
Webb said he tried to avoid sending players off, but agreed that that sometimes meant he failed to show the red card when he should have done.
"I recall a Manchester derby when Cristiano Ronaldo sarcastically applauded me after I booked him," Webb said. "Of course, I should have showed him the red card (sarcastic applause is seen as dissent, a booking offence) but I thought to myself, 'I'm going to change the course of the game by doing this.' For want of a better word, I bottled it by not sending him off."
The 45-year-old Webb is a soccer analyst and head of refereeing for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and says he'd like to land more roles that help to develop refs.
Famous as much for his bald head as his refereeing, Webb says the OCD began when he was a boy growing up in Rotherham, east of Manchester in northern England.
He noticed that sometimes he kissed his mother goodbye in the morning and a bad thought entered his head that something was going to happen to her. So he would kiss her again - and again - until a positive thought about her entered his head and he could relax.
His parents noticed the behaviour, but brushed it aside as "Howard's habits."
Webb kept it from his football employers. "I could have imagined some less-than-sympathetic person remarking, 'Can we trust Webb on a football field? Or shall we hand that semifinal to a ref who's, erm, not so flaky?"'
Until he retired in 2014, Webb was England's top referee, and his autobiography reveals a profession riven by in-fighting among the small group of elite refs who control English Premier League games.
"What had been intended as an informal beer and barbecue night in Cumbria almost descended into a version of Fight Night ... between Graham Poll and Mark Halsey," Webb wrote.
He said: "Watching them trading personal insults and squaring up to each other was pretty unedifying." Both ex-referees have denied any such clash took place.
While more and more technology was being introduced to help refs, Webb said footballing authorities needed to recognize that technology has its limits.
"There has to be a clear acceptance that it won't be the answer to every decision in the game," he said.
Goal-line technology has proved a big success, but Webb was a less a fan of video technology.
"Some decisions aren't right or wrong," he said. "They're subjective decisions that should be made by the referee."