British referee Howard Webb (L) speaks with Brazil's forward Hulk (C) during extra-time of the Round of 16 match between Brazil and Chile at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 28, 2014.
The last Englishman to cause such a furore over a robbery in Brazil was Ronnie Biggs, who first touched down in Rio around 1970. Biggs escaped from a London prison a year after his part in the infamous Great Train Robbery of 1963. He fled the UK for a life on the run before shipping out and and eventually washing back up in Blighty to face the music in 2001.
Due to lack of extradition agreements, Biggs was allowed to spend 31 years in the land of the Seleção. There is a fair chance the Brazilians would not have granted Howard Webb any sort of refuge if an afternoon of utter bedlam in Belo Horizonte had not fallen for them. The Yorkshire referee would have needed a wig and fake glasses to get out of town with his whistle intact.
A nation of around 200 million football fanatics was left thanking a higher power after Brazil edged out gallant, courageous Chile 3-2 on penalties at the end of an absorbing 1-1 draw during normal and extra-time. Perhaps Webb will be just as grateful in his private moments for such a favourable outcome when he considers what the day spawned.
If Brazil had lost on penalties, the search for scapegoats would have begun in earnest. And one decision of Webb would have quickly come to the forefront of Brazilian minds.
The public perception of a great robbery was probably only avoided by the lottery of Brazil emerging unscathed from penalties. Such scenes of nationalistic fretting were not seen even during the organised riots to protest against the cost of staging these finals at the expense of a reliable health service and public housing.
Webb's decision to agree with a linesman and disallow what would probably have been Brazil's winning goal on 54 minutes was a brave and correct decision, but it prompted an afternoon of high angst that eventually turned into tears of joy and relief when the unfortunate Gonzalo Jara - another key protagonist of the goings on - saw a penalty come back off a post to settle the afternoon in the home side's favour.
Hulk is a figure who looks like he could go the way of his 2002 World Cup-winning predecessor Ronaldo if he gives up the cardio when his career ends.
But his ample frame makes him a formidable force in leading an attack, certainly more telling than Jo or Fred, who is notable only for his moustache. Hulk and Willian both failed to score for Brazil during the shoot-out, but like Webb's whistle, it did not prove fatal nor define his country's destiny.
He seemed optimistic he had given his side a 2-1 advantage when he controlled Marcelo's ball before flicking a volley beyond Bravo, despite failing to connect cleanly with the finish.
While Hulk was celebrating, Webb was busy agreeing with the linesman's assertion that the player had used his arm to control the ball. He added to the mood of disbelief and injustice among the vociferous home fans when he decided to yellow card Hulk.
It was such a tight call for Webb to make. He could have given it either way, but was probably just about correct in calling it in Chile's favour; replays and pictures emerged quickly showing that Hulk would not have collected the ball without illegal use of his arm.
But that was only evident after the fact, in slow motion and freeze frame. In real-time analysis, the policeman would not have encountered any more heat from a home crowd if he had been patrolling a match between Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday.
Alexis Sanchez had brought Chile back into the reckoning with a lovely finish on 32 minutes to restore parity after Jara's own goal under pressure from David Luiz had garnered Brazil the lead on 18 minutes. To compound his misery, Jara - without a club after being released by Nottingham Forest - saw the 10th penalty of the shoot-out come back off a post to confirm Chile's unfortunate departure.
It was Sanchez who had had cast doubt over Webb's stature ahead of this contest by mentioning the official in his pre-match press conference.
“I’m very happy to be playing against Brazil, but what worries me most is the refereeing,” Sanchez had been quoted as saying.
Rodrigo Paiva, the director of communications at the Brazilian Football Federation, had responded by branding Sanchez's comments “ridiculous” in trying to add pressure to the referee's decision-making.
“It is a lack of respect to the Brazilian people," said Paiva. "Brazil doesn’t need a referee to win the match, and you should respect a little bit more the Brazilian Selecao and the Brazilian people."
Brazil did not require a referee to win a match. Webb did not subscribe to any hometown decisions. Which is to his eternal credit.
A weaker referee would have buckled. As we have seen in previous Brazil fixtures. Not that his standing will be greatly enhanced among the nation's football followers during their partying.
His is a thankless task. Webb refereed the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, a match in which as many people remember Webb's failure to send off Nigel de Jong for a kick to Xabi Alonso's chest than they do the name of the winning goalscorer.
You do wonder who will go deeper into this tournament. Brazil or Webb? He is surely unlikely to be seen around another Brazil match for a while.
Apart from Webb getting all of his main decisions right, both teams had their moments during some frantic happenings.
Mauricio Pinilla had walloped a shot off the bar in the dying moments that would have won the match for the visiting side. One suspected then it was not to be for Jorge Sampaoli's side.
Somehow Brazil escaped with their hide intact. Chile remain without a win over the Seleção on Brazilian soil, losing 21 - if you include penalties as a defeat - and drawing six.
Incredibly, Brazil last lost a competitive match at home in a 3-1 Copa America defeat to Peru in 1975. It was in Belo Horizonte, but this time the city favoured them.
There is little doubt 'Big' Phil Scolari's side will have to improve if they are to make good on their somewhat misleading status as tournament favourites.
Much is resting on Neymar, who converted a glorious penalty when the heat was on. Too much perhaps. But at least they remain active. Chile do not.
'By reason or by force,' is the motto of Chile. They did not lack either. All they were without as the tears tumbled from their eyes was luck.
- Sports & Recreation
- Howard Webb
- Ronnie Biggs