Howard Webb and Mark Geiger, two of the most well-known referees produced by England and the United States, respectively, are now among the lead staff at the Professional Referee Organization, which was created to support and improve officiating in Major League Soccer and across the American soccer men's and women's pyramid.
They are also living, breathing evidence that even the best and most respected refs can have tough moments behind the whistle.
As Webb (PRO's general manager) and Geiger (PRO's director of senior match officials) began an informational session on Friday to explain their mission to club staff members at Columbus Crew SC, they also spoke frankly about their most infamous moments and how they can define otherwise exemplary careers.
One of Webb's most talked-about calls came in the biggest spotlight imaginable, the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands, when he showed only a caution for then-future LA Galaxy Nigel de Jong's studs-to-the-chest tackle on Xavi Alonso (pictured below).
The Netherlands' Nigel de Jong, left, escaped this studs-to-the-chest challenged on Spain's Xavi Alonso with only a yellow card from referee Howard Webb in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final | USA Today Sports Images
To this day, Webb says, why he failed to produce a red is often the first question he gets wherever he goes. Having built a strong reputation in the English Premier League, some even ask him whether the out-of-character error came because of a directive from FIFA, which to this day he flatly says is untrue.
"I simply just didn’t have a very good viewing angle. I knew that de Jong was late, but of course I didn’t see what you can see now," Webb said during Friday's call, referencing a presentation that showed another image of the challenge.
"To be fair, (in a) World Cup final, I needed some certainty to put a team down to 10 men because you’re going to change the game. So without that level of certainty, not even a level of strong gut feeling, I decided to show a yellow card. And only later did I see that image, and realize at that point that the introduction of Video Review would’ve helped me massively."
Fortunately for Webb, the decision ultimately did not impact the match's outcome. Eventually the Netherlands' Johnny Heitinga would leave Webb no choice but to issue the center back a second caution and reduce the Dutch to 10 men. Andres Iniesta went on to score a very late extra-time winner and give Spain their first World Cup crown.
Geiger, whom MLS and Concacaf fans had watched for many years before he ascended to his role at PRO, was not so fortunate. A year removed from becoming the first-ever American referee to take charge of a World Cup knockout phase match at the 2014 tournament in Brazil, Geiger was again in charge of a Concacaf Gold Cup semifinal between Mexico and Panama. It was there he whistled Inter Miami defender Roman Torres for a deliberate handball in the penalty area that allowed Mexico to equalize at the death and sent many in the Panamanian side threatening to leave the pitch in protest.
Mexico eventually won the game on another more clear-cut penalty, then beat Jamaica in the final while Panama were forced to play a third-place match against the United States. Amid suspicions that the decision owed to tournament organizer's desire to have Mexico in the final for the purpose of selling tickets, Concacaf even took the unusual step of issuing an official statement where Geiger admitted his error.
"Panama left the field, and rightfully so, they were upset," Geiger said on Friday. "When I got into the locker room after the game and I was watching the highlights on the TV, and they showed the challenge, up to this point I did not know that I was wrong. But they showed the challenge, and my heart just sunk and my stomach sunk. All I could think of and I said, that’s not what I saw. And we are very sure when we give penalty decisions and we give red cards. We’re very sure in what we saw. But in this case I had a very poor angle. And what I saw was not actually what happened."
Geiger continued to referee in MLS, but he admits it took a while before he returned to his normal self.
"My confidence was low. Just like any player," Geiger said on Friday. "For the next year, I didn’t feel like I had my confidence, and I was questioning every single decision that I was making."
Geiger rebounded and eventually earned another knockout round appointment for England's triumph over Colombia on penalties in the second round of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Not long after, he went on board under Webb at PRO.
Much of the hour-long call with Webb and Geiger goes into the behind-the-scenes workings of the organization, and how referees think through the game in a manner different from players and coaches. But if you're interested in a crucial element of the game that is often overlooked when not at the middle of controversy, it's well worth your time.