There’s always been something about England and grave misfortune at World Cups. Even with our inevitably biased sympathy for the Three Lions is taken into account, it’s hard to think of a nation that has endured more instances of poor luck at major international tournaments.
Diego Maradona’s Hand of God, David Beckham’s questionable sending off against Argentina before Sol Campbell even more questionably had a late winner chalked off, Frank Lampard’s in-off-the-bar piledriver against Germany that obliged FIFA to adopt goal-line technology, and the not-so-small matter of a penalty shootout hoodoo that plagued England throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Of course, Gareth Southgate’s England team finally lifted the curse against Colombia, during a World Cup in which the order of the knockout tree has been more than kind to the former defender’s young and expansive side. But the overdue dose of luck that’s served the Three Lions so well at this tournament could be about to run out against Croatia, for one crucial reason – referee Cuneyt Cakir.
Manchester United fans will already know only too well how devastating a blow Cakir could prove to be for England, because he clearly has a problem with the way the English game is played.
Sir Alex Ferguson was so livid with the Turkish official’s decision to send off Nani for a ‘high boot’ in his final Champions League game that the Red Devils gaffer refused to do his post-match interview, instead muttering to reporters that it was “hard to keep faith” following that kind of call.
Ferguson also quite rightly pointed out that, despite refereeing the vast majority of his games in the Turkish Super Lig – which is hardly a bastion of fair play – Cakir has somehow managed to send off seven players from English clubs throughout his career, compared to none for the teams England clubs have faced, including three England internationals – John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Gary Cahill.
That’s a pretty strong indication of how Cakir views English football, and his World Cup performances haven’t given much cause to expect anything else on Wednesday night.
He’s handed out nine yellow cards in two games, averaged the most fouls per game of any referee to officiate more than one match so far at this World Cup and he’s awarded almost exactly one foul per tackle. To say he’s a bit whistle-friendly would be a massive underestimation.
Perhaps though, there is a silver lining here – provided Cakir isn’t once again letting nationality take precedent over what’s actually taking place in front of him. Croatia have actually committed the seventh-most fouls per match of any team at this World Cup, while England have scored the most goals from set pieces of any team with five in as many games.
Bearing that in mind then, Cakir’s strict approach should actually work in English football’s favour for once.