At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, David Beckham was captain of England. The squad he led – though painfully restricted by manager Sven-Göran Eriksson’s abhorrence of creativity and his subsequent insistence on persevering with a patently uninspiring 4-4-2 formation – held within its ranks more than a handful of supremely talented Englishmen; a golden generation, touted as they were by many watching on in hope back home.
The team was not equally blessed in every position, some areas were undeniably stronger than others. But England’s defence could rely on the extensive experience and quality of full-backs Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, who bookended a sublime centre-back pairing in Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. At its core, though impeded by its rigidity, England’s midfield was among the strongest in the world with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, Owen Hargreaves and the aforementioned Beckham to choose from. Up-top, England had the likes of Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and, to a lesser extent, Peter Crouch to provide the team’s firepower in front of goal.
Eriksson’s squad was far from cohesive. Club allegiances prevailed in ways that other nations found far easier to overcome, tethering the English to their domestic devotions and diluting the squad’s potential, but the players under the Swede’s tutelage boasted great quality. Sadly, individual talent alone would ultimately prove insufficient, as it often does on the World Cup stage.
Despite topping their group without fuss and successfully negotiating a potentially hazardous meeting with Ecuador in the following round, England would do as England do best and exit the tournament prematurely, ousted by the all too familiar penalty shootout, this time at the hands of the Portuguese.
On 2 July, the dreary day that followed their dramatic defeat in Gelsenkirchen, the squad swiftly departed their German base and flew home, returning to Stansted Airport to find awaiting them a scene that at a push could hardly be described as a hero’s welcome.
One Englishman, however, had already made the journey home from the World Cup, also far sooner than he’d hoped, and with his head hung even lower than those of his fellow countrymen. That particular Englishman was referee Graham Poll.
Given his wealth of domestic experience and respectable reputation throughout Europe, it came as little surprise when Poll, along with his two assistants, Philip Sharp and Glen Turner, was selected by FIFA to be England’s sole refereeing representative at the tournament. What was surprising was how staggeringly poor a performance he gave when called upon to referee the crucial Group F finale between Croatia and Australia.
By the time the Croatia versus Australia tie rolled into view, Poll had already taken charge of two fixtures at the tournament – a 2-1 victory for Korea Republic over Togo and Ukraine’s 4-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia – escaping without inadvertently snatching the headlines of either match. Fate was seemingly saving the best, or perhaps the worst, until last.
Unlikely to be overawed by the occasion, having officiated finals in the Football League playoffs, League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup, as well as marshalling fixtures in previous international tournaments in the form of Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, few considered the likelihood of Poll stealing the limelight in a winner-takes-all group stage game at the World Cup.
Of course, given the nature of the job required of him, there remains the very real possibility in any and all football matches that the referee may just play the most telling role of all the 23 men found between the white lines.
In anticipation of their third and final group stage game, Australia were sat in second place in the group having defeated Japan before losing to table-toppers Brazil. Croatia, meanwhile, were yet to score, losing to Brazil and contesting a goalless draw with Japan. This left the impending fixture perfectly poised.
A draw would maintain the status quo but a win would suffice for either side in seeing them into the knockout rounds. At the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion in Stuttgart, the two nations locked horns and the game got underway, albeit at the second time of asking following the referee’s insistence on a retaken kick-off. A sign of the madness that was to come, perhaps.
With scarcely two minutes on the clock, Croatian captain Niko Kovač robbed the Australian midfield of possession with a keen interception and galloped forward before being scythed down by Vince Grella some 25 yards from goal. The ball broke favourably and Croatia looked to continue their attack down the left wing, but Poll had already blown his whistle and the play was brought back.
Discontent with being denied the opportunity to seek an immediate advantage, the Croatian players remonstrated with the English referee, though their frustrations were quickly extinguished when, from the resulting free-kick, Darijo Srna whipped the ball over the wall and into the top corner of the Australian goal.
Shortly before half-time, a long cross was looped into the Croatian box by the right foot of Brett Emerton where it found a set of jostling bodies. Among them was defender Stjepan Tomas whose outstretched arms ensured his knuckles grazed the ball, altering its descent just slightly, causing Poll to whistle for an Australian penalty. Newcastle’s Craig Moore tucked it home, straight down the middle. A few minutes later the referee called a halt to proceedings for half-time. So far so relatively pedestrian for Poll.
Early in the second half, a goalkeeping howler from Australian custodian Zeljko Kalac allowed Croatia to regain their lead as he fumbled Kovač’s speculative shot and allowed it to bounce into the gaping net behind him. Somewhat fortunately for Kalac, he’d not be the only of the game’s protagonists to be remembered for a glaring error.
With an hour of the game gone, Harry Kewell marauded forward only to find his route into the Croatian penalty area blocked off by the considerable figure of Josip Šimunić. Much to the Croatian defender’s frustration, his attempted shield was deemed a foul and, for both his unfavourable defensive tactics and his exuberant protestations, he was shown a yellow card by Poll.
From an inswinging cross, delivered by Mark Bresciano, a hopeful back-post header was prevented by an instinctive Croatian intervention, to which the Australians responded with raised hands and vehement accusations. The replay showed that, not dissimilar to his mistake in the first half, Tomas had interrupted the cross with his hand. However, unlike his first, this wasn’t so much of a misguided grazed fist as a bonafide punch clear. Incredibly, Poll denied the desperate Australian claims and gave only a corner.
A few minutes later, Socceroos hopes were reignited, and the fury of the unseen handball partially forgiven, when Kewell took his team’s fate into his own hands, receiving another floated cross from Bresciano deep inside Croatian territory and controlling the bounce before smashing a half-volley beyond the reach of Stipe Pletikosa.
With 85 minutes played, both sides fraught with nerves and wracked by desperation – Australia hoping to preserve parity and cling onto a place in the last 16 and Croatia wishing for one last goal to carry them onwards – Kewell flicked the ball over an incoming challenge and swerved infield. There he was cut down by a tackle from the already cautioned Dario Šimić and the Croatian centre-back received the first red card of the game. Apoplectic with rage, and poignantly aware of his side’s fading aspirations, Srna pushed Poll and was fortunate not to be reprimanded himself.
Two minutes on and the ranks were levelled. An outstretched arm from Emerton prevented a neat touchline one-two between Luka Modrić and Dado Pršo and the two nations were momentarily left with 10 players apiece. Momentarily being the key word.
Another hopeful Croatia attack warranted another determined Australia clearance; the ball fell to Mark Viduka who held possession well. Šimunić subsequently pulled Viduka to the ground, immediately charged at the feet of Aussie Joshua Kennedy, who had picked up the loose ball, before cutting him down from behind in a suicidal attempt to stop a more meaningful attack from materialising.
BBC commentator Guy Mowbray described the events live on air: “An almighty tangle results in Kennedy crashing down in the centre circle and Šimunić picks up his second yellow card. That’s been brandished already. Graham Poll writes down the name,” he reported, his cadence rising in tone as he anticipated the seemingly inevitable expulsion. “Šimunić has walked away? The red’s confirmed. I don’t think Poll has got the red card out of his pocket yet. He’s given him a yellow card but he’s forgotten he was booked. I’m certain Šimunić had been booked!” He had and, as had Mowbray suspected, Poll had forgotten.
The game continued with the wily Šimunić still on the field, far too selfless a sportsman to point out such a grave error to a fellow professional, until Poll blew the full-time whistle at the very moment the ball had been flicked by an Australian boot into the Croatian goal.
A long throw had found a flick goalwards from the head of Viduka, evaded an attempted clearance, and been prodded over the onrushing Pletikosa, seemingly underlining Australia’s already-safe passage into the knockout round with a 3-2 win. But Poll’s whistle, in spite of the goalbound effort, cut short the Australian celebrations and brought the curtain down on the game with the score still locked at 2-2, leaving the Socceroos to toast their group stage progression despite the absence of a win.
“High drama in Stuttgart!” Mowbray continued. “Graham Poll at the centre of it. It’s been ruled as a second yellow card for Josip Šimunić. He should’ve been off a few minutes ago, it’s actually his third.” From his vantage point in the stands, sat in the very stadium the referee hoped would swallow him up, The Guardian’s Sean Ingle reported on the match with the headline ‘Poll loses the Plot’.
In his 2007 autobiography, Seeing Red, Poll recalled the events surrounding his memorable mistake. “My system had always been to identify teams in my notebook by their colours and not the team name. It is a system which I had found prevents confusion, believe it or not. So, in Stuttgart, I put ‘Red/White’ for Croatia at the top of my left-hand column and listed the numbers of the players underneath. In the right-hand column, I put ‘Yellow’ for Australia and listed their numbers. So when I cautioned Šimunić that first time, I correctly put a ‘C’ for caution against Red/White number 3 in the left-hand column and noted the time – ‘16/2’ (which meant 16 minutes of the second half).
“In stoppage time, I cautioned Šimunić again – but I didn’t realise it was again. He fouled Australia sub Joshua Kennedy and I showed him the yellow card – but, this time, as I now realise, I recorded it wrongly. I put the ‘C’ beside the Yellow 3, in line with the Red/White 3, which already had a ‘C’ against it. I didn’t note a time or offence.
“Although I have replayed the incident a thousand times in my head, I don’t really know why I did what I did. I cannot fully understand why I got it wrong and why I failed to send off Šimunić. Aussie Joe certainly speaks with a broad Australian accent. Maybe, just maybe, that is where the confusion set in. Šimunić began having a go at me. ‘You’re unbelievable,’ he said. I told him, ‘Any more of that and you’ll be off…’ As he ran away he said, ‘That is unbelievable.’ We all know now what he meant.”
To provide some further context, and afford the referee some slack, it should perhaps be noted that Simunić is not entirely unique in so much that he is a Croatian born in Australia, subsequently an English with an Australian accent, potentially explaining the origins of Poll’s initial faux pas. Irrespective of its reasoning, however, the mistake was remarkable and stayed with the referee long after the tournament finished.
In a press release that followed, Poll alleged to have requested to be sent home from the tournament prior to the beginning of the knockout rounds, wishing to be one of the group of referees typically let go following the far more fixture-heavy group stages, to exorcise his World Cup demons while in the company of his family. Needless to say, FIFA had no issue with releasing the English official from his duties.
Poll continued to referee for a further 12 months after the 2006 World Cup, extending his career into a reported 26th and final year, but made it clear to the FA he no longer wished to represent his country at an international level. “It’s time for somebody else in England to have a go and I will do everything I can to prepare them,” Poll said, “But for me, tournament football is over.”
While fickle football fans rarely mourn the retirement of a referee, there would almost certainly have been one burly Croatian made a little sad to have seen the news of Graham Poll’s refereeing career coming to an end. Perhaps, on a calm and quiet afternoon somewhere in the years that followed, he even took the time to write him a retirement card or three.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp