It's so easy to scold the referee. So easy. In fact, you should always avoid it. Only this time, after what is probably the best game of the World Cup so far, France against England, there is little else left. Because the Brazilian Wilton Sampaio had, to put it mildly, an idiosyncratic way of whistling on Saturday night. It wasn't just the actors on the pitch and on the sidelines who were taken aback, the ZDF commentators were also at a loss from time to time and made no secret of it.
It was unfortunate for everyone involved, but especially for the British. Because they were the victims a few times too often and must have felt at times as if France had a twelfth man in the game. The French played foul after foul Brite after Brite. The referee, however, remained – well – generous, not only depriving the Three Lions of a penalty once. England icon Gary Lineker and ZDF expert Per Mertesacker also saw it that way. There's plenty of evidence that Sampaio didn't cut a good figure on the pitch, maybe it was too much of a challenge, who knows.
At least four scenes caused tempers to heat up during and after the game. The first time Bukayo Saka, who played a great game that night and later got a penalty for the Brits, was left behind. In the 18th minute, he was mowed down when the French took the lead. A clear foul for Lineker. A clear foul for Mertesacker. Nothing for Sampaio. "I would have liked the referee to blow the whistle and immediately give Saka a foul," commented ex-national player Mertesacker. A wish he was certainly not the only one to have.
Just seven minutes later, the next situation that caused incredulous astonishment. Bayern professional Dayot Upamecano flattened the British captain, Harry Kane, at the edge of the penalty area. Lineker recognized a 100% penalty, but the referee didn't want to know anything about it, even refrained from watching the scene again. Again no penalty, not even a free kick for the Brits. "Only once could a decision be made in our favour," Lineker tweeted touchedly. But nothing, nada, niente. Referee Patrick Ittrich, an expert at Magenta TV, didn't want to let that stand either. "It would have been quite good if if the referee had recognized foul play. I don't understand it," he said.
Mertesacker found clearer words for what happened in the early stages of the quarter-finals: "In 20 minutes, the English were really robbed in two good situations and that's how the goal came about." It's a shame that the referee didn't have a lucky hand there, said Mertesacker. Yes. Too bad - especially for the British. And the misery continued. In the 78th minute, when Olivier Giroud put the French back in the lead, ZDF referee expert Manuel Gräfe not only saw his head on the goal, but also an arm. If the video assistant referee had seen it that way, the goal should have been disallowed. He does not have. Alright, given.
But only three minutes later another Sampaio blockbuster. Frenchman Theo Hernández knocked down Mason Mount in the penalty area. He elbowed him in the back, not even looking at the ball. Clear foul, say the ZDF commentators. But Sampaio lets it continue - of course - until the video assistant intervenes. But there was still no red card. As a result, not only Jude Bellingham had questions for the referee.
Did the French deserve this victory? The simple answer: you won, so yes. And sure, who would dispute that Les Bleus are world class. After all, they and nobody else are reigning world champions and defending champions. And yet this answer also includes a no. Because what they showed on the lawn in al-Khour was not really glamorous. Even goalscorer Giroud saved on superlatives after the final whistle. The team held up solidly. And she had to. Because the Three Lions had chances, many chances to score. They just didn't know how to use them. The ball didn't want to go into the net.
A penalty went well over the goal, a free kick just before the final whistle went just a hair over the crossbar. And then Hugo Lloris was still in the way. Only once in that furious game was Lloris off where the ball was. When Kane nailed the first penalty into the corner. The French had that infamous bit of luck that evening. The British, on the other hand, had no luck at first and then bad luck, to use the words of the great Jürgen "Kobra" Wegmann.
And yet the British fought to the last second, believing in the miracle. And there were already more than one of them during the World Cup. Morocco only kicked Portugal out of the tournament in the afternoon. And that the Brits are not only hot, but also ready for a big title, is undisputed. The team is ripe, the country is ripe, Liam Gallagher was ripe. The musician and ex-Oasis frontman previously posted euphorically on Instagram: "I THINK IT'S COMING HOME AGAIN. I think it's coming back home". If he comes, the title, but not. Again it's a penalty that doesn't succeed when it comes down to it. That's already a tradition for the lions. Most recently occupied in the EM final against Italy 2021. So the great football nation England has to wait for the first major title since the World Cup victory in 1966.
The England curse lives on – and this time it also had something to do with the referee.