Whistle while you work
Over Christmas 18 years ago, Pierluigi Collina lost all his hair in the space of 15 days to an attack of the little-understood disease alopecia. “I don’t know what happened,” he says.
“I have tried to remember with my parents.
I was 24 years old, but I don’t remember anything particular.”
It is Collina’s great achievement that the disorder that gave him such a distinctive look, and would have been the most memorable thing about almost any other referee, is not the reason why we all know him so well. He is universally recognised because he is the best—one of the few subjective statements that can be made in sport with little risk of contradiction. (Earlier this year he was voted best referee in the world for the fourth time in a row.) He is, of course, officiating at the World Cup finals.
Just before going to Korea and Japan, I visit him in Italy. As his wife, Gianna, opens the front door of the family home in Viareggio, Collina skips down the stairs that curve into a spacious hallway. The house is a substantial villa in a street not far from the town centre and close to the sea. Viareggio, just north of Pisa, is a slightly faded seaside resort. Collina extends a hand and greets me in English, which he learns with the other Italian referees during the get-togethers held every other week at the Italian Football Association’s headquarters at Coverciano in Florence. He is clearly as diligent an English student as he is a referee.
The first impression is that Collina looks much younger in the flesh than he does on television. He says that a combination of his looks and the concentration involved in refereeing may make him seem older—and, occasionally, angrier—than he is. “But you are speaking to me and I’m a normal man. I think if people knew referees better they could understand much better what referees are.”
Collina, born and brought up in Bologna, played football until he was 17 when a school friend suggested they attend a referees’ course together. The friend had an eyesight problem and was not allowed to do the course, but Collina went ahead. “At each step I was considered one of the best, sometimes the best,” he says of the 14 years it took him to work his way through the ranks to become a Serie B referee.
He also went to the University of Bologna, graduating with a degree in economics. His first job was in the marketing department of a newspaper group based in Milan. In 1991 he moved to Viareggio to work for a bank, which he still does as a financial consultant (Italian referees are not yet full-time professionals). Does he think of himself as a referee or a financial consultant? “It’s not easy to say what is my real job, but being a financial adviser is the job of my future.”
All the same there is no doubting his commitment to football and the sense of kinship he feels with his fellow referees. Ask him who he thinks will win the World Cup and he says, “I’m sure the 33rd squad will win the World Cup. By that I mean my squad, the referees’ squad. We are preparing very hard and we will arrive in the best possible shape.”
Ask him the great conundrum—would he prefer to referee the final or Italy to win it—and he replies: “There is no answer. I will be very proud if my national team win it. My goal is to prepare for the World Cup as well as I can.”
His sense of brotherhood with his fellow officials is reflected in a sensitivity to questions about the standard of refereeing. He is weary of the idea that referees are the only people who make mistakes in football. “Football is an imperfect game in which everyone tries to do their best, but sometimes it happens that they can’t. I remember a short speech given by Mr [Giovanni] Trapattoni while he was the coach of Fiorentina, three or four years ago, after a big, big mistake made by his goalkeeper. He said, ‘If a player cannot commit a mistake on the field, we can stop the game and go away.’ And I think it has to be the same for the referee, too.” He says his own mistakes upset him, “but if I’m sure that I did all to prepare for the match as best I could, I have to accept it”.
He regards television as “an unequal instrument” when it comes to calibrating mistakes. “It’s too easy to find an angle of vision different from my angle of vision that could show clearly that something happened in a different way from the way I judged. It is too easy for television and this is the reason why it seems that in football nowadays there are many more mistakes than there were 15 years ago. Then there were only three cameras in the middle of the field covering the whole playing area. Now there are 16. Maybe at the next World Cup there will be 20.”
But he does not subscribe to replays being used to help with decisions, except to clarify whether a goal has been scored. “If someone could find the technology that would guarantee 100% if the ball crossed the line, I think that would be accepted. In other situations, though football is an imperfect game and I don’t understand why we try to make it perfect only in refereeing. I like football as it is nowadays. The referee’s decision has to be accepted, it has to be maintained.”
Later, though, he does waver over whether television may help in eliminating what he calls simulation—what we know as diving—which was the main topic of a recent refereeing seminar in Seoul and looks certain to be the issue of this World Cup.
He sees diving as a crime against fellow workers. “In a sense opponents are colleagues. Players are not only people who play, they are workers, people doing a job playing. That means people doing the same job are colleagues, and I think gaining an advantage in a very unfair way such as diving can create a big problem for an opponent. The result of a relegation match, for instance, could end a player’s career. So I think a player should be careful, really careful, before diving.”
Trust in players is a recurring theme with Collina and, even if you suspect there must be some notable exceptions, it is equally possible to believe that the secret of his success is his inclination to think the best of the 22 others he shares a pitch with.
English referee Graham Poll, who will also be going to the World Cup, wondered recently whether players could say with the same certainty as referees that they don’t cheat. Collina, after joking that because he and Poll are good friends he has to agree with him, again raises the importance of trust—and implicitly places himself closer to the players than perhaps Poll and his fellow English officials. “I don’t want to start a match without trusting the players because I couldn’t have good relations with a man in whom I didn’t trust. It’s impossible. I wish it could be like this all the time. Sometimes something happens that makes it difficult to maintain this trust, but basically I trust players.”
Perhaps he would find it harder with English players; after all, he has a particularly difficult relationship with Paul Ince, who was sent off by Collina while playing for Internazionale in Serie A and for England against Sweden in a European championship qualifier in 1998.
“This is not true, this is not true,” protests Collina. “A red card doesn’t mean there is a bad relationship. Before England played Scotland [in the European championship play-off at Wembley in November 1999], Ince was asked about the fact that I was refereeing and he said he was very happy to meet me and had a very good feeling towards me. Maybe you know him better than me, but I think he’s a very sincere man.”
Collina says he has no time for grudges, an attitude, it seems, that he has managed to communicate to players. He gives an example of an incident involving Pierluigi Casiraghi when the striker played for Lazio. “During the match we had some discussion, tough discussion, on the field. Three or four days later, he sent me a press photograph of me and him—close, angry. On the back of the picture was written, ‘Even the picture doesn’t mean this, my feeling for you is always very high’. I think this is a good example. Things happen on the pitch—discussions, arguments—but at the end of the match everything is over.”
And the match he most enjoyed refereeing? Again the refereeing gets in the way of assessing the merits of matches, he says. “But there are matches with high emotions and I think no one could forget the Champions League final in 1999 in Barcelona [Bayern Munich 1, Manchester United 2], for the very particular ending of the match. If I have to think of something very emotional I think of the last three minutes in Barcelona.”
They say the ultimate test of a good referee is if you hardly notice his presence and, you know, I’d clean forgotten Pierluigi Collina was in charge that May night in Barcelona.