Pierluigi Collina: Still the world’s best football referee

Footballers typically get to bask in the limelight, but that all changed when an eerily bald Italian match official came into the sport.

A devout fan of basketball should really have no business being voted the best football referee in the world (winning the referee of the year accolade six times consecutively from 1998 to 2003). But Pierluigi Collina is no ordinary hoop fan, nor is he an ordinary referee. 

And so, it was always going to be a strange proposition for a couple of hardcore footy fans to speak to the Italian, who was down for the Business Of Innovation 2014 forum in Kuala Lumpur recently to share insight into his decades-long career. 

But having watched football for the better part of the last three decades, Collina has certainly stood tall above the rest of the men in black. Heck, he’s the Jimi Hendrix of football referees, if that analogy could be allowed. 

Pierluigi Collina: Even though he retired in 2005, the man whose stare could reduce celebrity footballers to silence is still considered by many as the best referee in the world. 

He’s the man who deemed three additional minutes were required to conclude the 1999 Champions League final in Nou Camp, Barcelona, with Bayern Munich facing off with Manchester United. And don’t we know how that panned out. Of course, there’s also the small matter of him officiating the 2002 FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Brazil in Japan.

On the pitch, all he needed was his trademark wide-eyed glare to stare down a player, who, chances are, would quickly acquiesce. Such was the mighty Italian’s command over the games he officiated and the players involved in them. Not to mention his trademark "hairless" look – the consequence of developing an extreme form of alopecia, a hair loss condition – merely added to his intimidating aura.

Now, however, years on from treading on the blades of grass in the best stadiums, Collina is just a highly knowledgeable, intriguing and genial man, as our brief chat with him revealed.

With the FIFA World Cup just a month away, anticipation is high on how goal-line technology is going to affect the game in Brazil next month.

After all, the lack of it has resulted in Geoff Hurst’s much debated goal against Germany at the 1966 World Cup finals in England. And if you thought lightning couldn’t strike twice, it did, but this time against England at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when familiar foes Germany got off with a legitimate though disallowed goal by Frank Lampard. In slow motion replays, the ball clearly crossed the line.

Besides giving Brazil – the first World Cup to utilise goal-line technology – a thumbs up, Collina also offered his thoughts on UEFA’s employment of additional assistant referees in matches during the qualifying matches of Champions League (2011-2012) and the final of Euro 2012.

“We at UEFA are also using the additional assistant referees that we think can be very, very important to help the referee to deal with, not only the goal-line technology, but also with many other incidents that normally occur inside and around the penalty area. An extra pair of eyes, positioned beside the goal from a different angle can be very useful,” said Collina, who continues to be a member of the UEFA Referees Committee.

Collina severely reprimanding Czech Republic's Tomas Repka following an argument during their group D match of the European Championship against Holland in 2000. – Reuters

Human touch

Contentious moments are part and parcel of every match official’s job. There is always a human element to what they do, be it making decisions or simply offering words of comfort to a distraught set of players at the end of the game. In fact, Collina had to summon all the sympathy he could muster at the 1999 Champions League final.

Bayern Munich had led 1-0 up to the 90th minute, but in the three additional minutes of injury time that Collina had deemed necessary, United equalised, and then snatched victory right under the noses of the Bavarians. It’s gone down as one of the most dramatic finals in the history of the tournament.

The 54-year-old former ref remembers it all very well. “It was a tough scene to take in because through that 90 minutes, Bayern were absolutely the best team and fully deserved to have won that match. And suddenly, two minutes, two goals. At that moment, they were convinced they were going to win but suddenly they lost the trophy. 

"You have two different moments – one where a group of players who were convinced they were going to win, didn’t, and the other, a group of players who never imagined they would, but suddenly found themselves celebrating. It was something very memorable,” said the amiable Collina.

As he pointed out, it was a singular opportunity for the Bayern players to win the trophy at that time, with no knowledge of their imminent supremacy at the following year’s tournament, so having lost out at that point was a cataclysmic blow.

“There are no words. What I felt immediately was to help some of these players stand up because there were 20 seconds left to play. I tried to physically pick these players up to continue. There are moments that really indicate how passionate the players are in what they do,” he added.

Learning the game and being clued in to the psychological aspects of the job all come from a foundation of proper education. Collina didn’t become a referee officiating matches at the neighbourhood kick-about – he was formally educated.

Collina took his referee’s course in 1977 when he was 17, but many would be surprised to learn that he also earned a degree in Economics from the University of Bologna in 1984, which quintessentially paved the way for a successful post-football career as a financial advisor after hanging up his whistle in 2005.

He attributes the life lessons drawn through those years as a young referee that truly set him on his path to really honing his unique ability to make astute decisions in the pressure-cooker environment of a football match.

Finding his feet

“The experience I had as a referee when I started as a 17-year-old really helped me in life. Everything in life is about decisions. It was not so easy for a youngster to make decisions, not only on something related to him, but related to someone else, about people older than you. Because when I refereed games at that time, the players were older than me. So, learning to make decisions at that time helped me when making decisions became part of my life. Not only in football but in life.”

Once the world recognised Collina as the best in the business, celebrity naturally followed.

Referees never took centre stage quite like they do these days. Two decades ago, they were just the men in black. But since the mid-1990s, referees have asserted their own identity, which is how fans have come to learn of Markus Merk, Roberto Rosetti, Anders Frisk, Graham Poll, Urs Meier and Howard Webb as though they’re household names. Collina even has T-shirts and figurines in his likeness.

When he was shown one such T-shirt, the Bologna-born match official turned red with embarrassment. “Where did you get this?” he asked, quietly breaking into a smile until his dimples showed.

The 2009 documentary, The Referees, provided a ring-side view of the job at hand for match officials on and off the pitch, the pressures they are subjected to, and even pre-match “routines”. Collina subscribes to a few of these superstitions himself: “Normally, the superstitions are superstitions because they are not told to anybody. We keep it a secret, you cannot tell anyone, otherwise it doesn’t work,” he said with a smile.

But he did throw us a bone, revealing that his pre-match meal would usually consist of Italian pasta and that one of his habits was to wrap the end of his whistle with white tape as he “preferred to have something a little bit soft to bite on” when marshalling a match.

The ugly game

With 22 men on the field, the man in black is often forgotten for most of the match, until a decision needs to be made. That’s when he becomes the most important individual on the pitch, along with his two assistants, of course. 

It’s split-second decision-making which can change the course of the game. Get it right, and the fans applaud. Get it wrong, and expect effigies to go up in flames the next day. The job is a thankless one, but one that needs to be done nonetheless.

With the stakes so high, naturally, it makes some fans of the game fanatics ... to a fault. Chelsea fans sent death threats to Swiss referee Frisk and his family for sending off Chelsea striker Didier Drogba in a 2005 Champions League tie against Barcelona. It was a dark day for the beautiful game when he retired promptly after, saying no game was more important than his family’s safety.

Collina empathises with his comrades, and fails to understand the logic of such fanatical behaviour.

“Being threatened because of football is something not understandable. After retiring, I was chairman of the referee committee for Serie A in Italy. I was put under police escort for a month at one point. It’s something I don’t wish on anybody, and knowing that it was because of something related to football is totally not understandable. 

"Referees have even been assaulted. And this is not just at the highest level of the game – every weekend in youth and amateur leagues, referees are assaulted by the parents of the players. That is something again, that is absolutely not understandable. It’s a pity.”

Collina called time on an illustrious career in 2005 when he hit 45, a year ahead of schedule after the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) had extended the age limit from 45 to 46 to make way for him to officiate the 2006 World Cup.

However, he sought an early exit in the aftermath of a conflict with the FIGC over a sponsorship deal in August 2005. To put it simply, he is a man who was not afraid to walk the talk, and measured himself to professionalism’s highest order. And when called into question, well, he just would not have it.

Collina hasn’t strayed too far from the game though, and is currently the head of referees for the Football Federation of Ukraine.

They don’t make them in his mould – these really come as rare instances. If the terraces of stadiums the world over would chant his name, it would be in the vein of “there is only one Collina”, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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