And then you’re alone in the midst of thousands of people
- the 2002 Adidas campaign
The above words capture the isolation of the soccer referee and there are probably few better placed to convey it than Pierluigi Collina, who reached the pinnacle of what is maybe better described as a successful career rather than a glittering one when he refereed the 2002 World Cup final in Japan. It was the 16th final in the history of the tournament so Collina, a university economics graduate and financial consultant outside sport, is a member of an exclusive club.
As well as the World Cup final, another big game Collina handled was the 1999 Champions League final which saw Manchester United wrench the trophy from the clutching hands of Bayern Munich in the dying minutes of the clash, something he described as the three most incredible moments in the history of football. Manchester City had by that stage not played QPR in the final match of the English Premiership 2011/2012 season.
Were it not for the current World Cup being played out in Brazil, The Rules of the Game would have lain as it was in my son’s room where many of my soccer books are spirited away, to be found beside his head or under the duvet when I get him up in the morning for school. The soccer bug does that. It injects a new want into the literary veins, so for the duration of Brazil 2014 I intend to be immersed in books about the ‘beautiful game.’
On pitch Collina unfailingly exuded confidence and authority. One of the stand out referees, he was instantly recognisable, although he could easily have convinced viewers that he had a night time job holding down the main role in the old vampire movie, Nosferatu. His hair succumbed to alopecia at the age of 24 but he turned it to his advantage and the shaven head became his trademark. An Italian who could speak both Spanish and English, Collina was an innovative and pragmatic official who started refereeing at the age of 17. In his book he provides an answer to a question wondered at by many but actually asked by the Dutch international Edgar Davids:
There’s something I don’t understand, when I go out onto the pitch, for me and my team, But you? What do you go out there for?His answer is concise – chance. I guess many people just fall into things in life, often discovering by chance that they have a particular talent for something which allows them to either ward off the gathering wolves at the door or affords them some advantage in the competitive world they navigate.
One observation by Collina above all else leapt out at me from the book: a contemptuous police attitude towards the football fan which may be a universal cop trait. It seems the mentality of the Italian police was very much in line with that of their British counterparts towards Liverpool supporters, 96 of whom were crushed to death and about whom the police smeared and lied, while covering up their own criminal culpability. Collina comments that:
Once I heard a high ranking police officer give a lecture in which he said that, all things considered, having certain types of people concentrated in the stadium made his job easier because they weren’t wandering the streets committing other sorts of crimes.Collina, while tending towards the pedantic when he discusses his game preparation, even down to the restaurants and hotels and the planning that goes into them, never labours the point to exhaustion: there is always something new to pop up. The detail about diet and routine is something the football anorak alone might be expected to persevere with, but there is so much more that offers a window on the world of the referee, often dismissed as the spoiler in every game, always there but rarely remembered after it. Nobody ever says the referee had a brilliant game, they are cursed rather than praised, reviled rather than remembered.
It was worthwhile read. We tend to be familiar with how the players gaze on the world so viewing it through the ref’s eye brings to life something of the complex infrastructure that lies behind what we see on the pitch, informing every move. I guess I had a sense that refereeing a game was just something that referees did routinely, perhaps mundanely. Dispassionate and emotion-free, they just turned up. The sense of anticipation, the desire to manage a big game, the disappointment at being left off the list - none of this much figured until reading this. Collina explains that referees don’t just walk onto a pitch as if it is a blank canvass. They do extensive research, study the teams, the players, the tactics, and reactions among other things so as to prepare themselves for all eventualities. It is not a mere question of trying to spot the divers. Collina uses his pen not just to book the players but to convey the psychology of refereeing.
To get his readers to understand the pressure cooker atmosphere on the pitch Collina invites them to draw comparisons with doctors, lawyers and judges. The decisions of a referee are made in real time, instantaneously, with little time to consult, even less to reflect. The torrent of abuse they draw down upon their heads when they get it wrong is unrelenting. There are threats and occasionally violence from fans. Quite often the culprits are the parents of kids in junior games who are offended by the ref failing to recognise the genius of their little Johnny.
Collina, arguably the best of his era.
Pierluigi Collina, 2003, The Rules of the Game. Macmillan: London. ISBN: 1405032790