This article was first featured in Issue 5 of the Box To Box magazine on the 2002 World Cup with words by Peter Lynch.
Pierluigi Collina was the last of his kind; a truly terrifying yet amazing referee.
In his book ‘The Rules of the Game’, the eagle-eyed assessor gives exceptional insight into just why he succeeded at the very top. Collina’s stare was enough to force terrified players to follow the rules of the game blindly, but he did ensure that beforehand he found out as much as he could about the players, style of play, teams and any underlying history between them.
With his attention to detail coupled with his true love of football of particular intrigue. Collina’s stare was enough to force terrified players to follow the rules of the game blindly, but he did ensure that beforehand he found out as much as he could about the players, style of play, teams any underlying history between them. This attention to detail was imperative enough for him to know what approach a coach may adopt should his team go behind and even as far to being aware to which foot each player favoured.
Collina first made it onto FIFA’s Referees List in 1995 after a succession of Serie A matches, and was then placed in charge of his ‘most memorable game’ as his three injury time minutes played a key role in Manchester United’s sensational Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich. It was however the 2002 FIFA World Cup – sandwiched in between officiating the UEFA Champions League Final in 1999 and the 2004 UEFA Cup Final – where Collina reached the apex of his career.
Before the tournament kicked off, unsurprisingly, the sharpest official in the sport vowed to stamp out cheating – and more specifically simulation – a notion that is increasingly required today as sportsmanship often makes way for gamesmanship.
The Italian was placed in the spotlight for the highly anticipated Group F tie between Argentina and England, Japan’s match with Turkey in the round of 16 and finally the thrilling final between footballing giants Germany and Brazil.
Reverence for Collina went a step further after he officiated fixture between Japan and Turkey. The host nation simply adored Collina and his presence at the tournament, and this admiration grew as he appeared in a television advert for frozen food products, increasing his fame in the country. Turkish football fans meanwhile feel they owe a great debt to the formidable character, with his popularity based on the astounding knowledge that no Turkish team – national or club – lost a game with him in charge.
His shining head and bulging eyes were unmissable as he blew the whistle to kick off the biggest game in football; the World Cup Final.
A mammoth 40 fouls were awarded by Collina throughout the game, but once again the Italian was on hand to cool the situation as he controlled the tense affair appropriately by handing out just two cautions throughout the entire 90 minutes. His whistle sounded to rapturous applause among the gold-clad South American players and fans, while the despairing Germans were left wondering what could have been.
Oliver Kahn’s worst nightmare had come to life as he gifted Ronaldo the opening goal, further cementing his angst at the thought of a match officiated by Collina, as the German had previously lost two high profile games with the Italian in charge. His World Cup pain joined an agonising list comprising of the aforementioned 1999 Champions League final and Germany’s horrific 5-1 defeat to England in 2001, all of which his nemesis Pierluigi had presided.
In a competition rife with controversies and allegations of corruptions among fellow referees, Collina stayed true to himself, and more importantly true to the game. The strict but fair official was inevitably loathed by some who were on the receiving end of his pinpoint decisions, yet he was always respected.
His reputation grew when he was chosen as the front cover figure for the hugely popular video games Pro Evolution Soccer 3 & 4 – pictured alongside the likes of Thierry Henry and Francesco Totti – proving just how influential he was in the football community. This highly unusual feat, coupled with the fact that Collina’s recognisable face appeared in countless television adverts, proved his likeable and respected personality. These representations are rarely seen in the lives of the game’s officials today, once again proving just how distinctive, how idiosyncratic, and simply how special he was. A true great of the game; words rarely used to describe a professional footballer, never mind a mere match official.
The living legend ended his professional refereeing career after handing in his resignation following a dispute between the Italian Football Federation and Collina in 2005, however he left the game with his head held high as the Italian Referees Association, unsurprisingly, attempted to reject his resignation. This transpired after the hugely influential figure essentially forced the federation to raise the mandatory retirement age to 46, in an attempt to accommodate Collina for a further season, but the Italian already had his heart set on retirement.
Post-retirement, taking centre stage for the Soccer Aid charity matches in 2006, 2008 and 2010 only furthered his claim as the world’s most respect- ed and adulated match official.
He entered the game in 1977 through a referee’s course at the age of 17, and retired as the greatest ever in the field after his last international match in a 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Lisbon at the age of 45 and with countless refereeing awards. Collina was undoubtedly one of a kind, sitting in stark contrast to others in his profession throughout the years, and is undeniably the greatest referee that football has ever and perhaps will ever see.