Pierluigi Collina: the outlier in black

Pierluigi Collina: the outlier in black

Between 1995 and 2005, one man seemed to be a constant fixture in the biggest games, from the Olympic and World Cup finals to the Champions League and UEFA Cup finals. For a decade, Pierluigi Collina was the man tasked with controlling the egos, the tantrums and the frustrations of multi-millionaire athletes, all at the top of their game and all wanting to win at any cost.

Collina is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ incarnate; the bald head, the steely blue bulging eyes that would elicit an icy stare, which could look into the very soul of a player and make them wither in his presence. Collina contradicted the accepted catechism of the referee by the players. The man from Bologna would be seen barking instructions to players who stepped out of line. Perhaps the most telling contradiction of all was that the Italian was on the front foot intimidating players and, if necessary, physically moving them backwards. They were scenes unlike any other witnessed before or since on a football pitch at the highest level.

Collina was born to a mother who worked as a teacher, a father who was employed by the Italian Ministry of Defence, and graduated from an education provided by nuns. Rules were always central to Collina’s upbringing, as was an unflinching sense of fair play and the need for integrity to be upheld above all else. His completion of National Service only served to establish an air of authority, which was matched by his physicality. His was a presence he would bring to bear on the biggest stage, and the fans loved him for it.

As a child Collina was no different to most adolescent boys, harbouring dreams of being a professional footballer. Always the tallest amongst his friends and teammates, his physique made him an ideal candidate for his preferred position of centre-half, but as with just about all adolescents, there dawned the inevitable realisation that he was not going to make it as a professional footballer. So, on the advice of a friend, Collina signed up to a refereeing course at the age of 17.

The Italian demonstrated a natural aptitude for officiating. Collina was becoming the equivalent of the wonder kid – the talented youngster at a club where rumours and whispers abound of an emerging talent. He was going to be the next big thing, only not as a player but as a referee. While still a teenager, Collina started his compulsory military service but continued to referee. His natural flair for the position of peacekeeper on the pitch saw him refereeing at the highest level of regional fixtures.

By 1988, Collina had completed his military experience and brought his experiences to the professional game. With his ability to exert quiet authority and calmness amidst chaos, Collina had progressed at a more rapid rate than most and was taking charge of fixtures in Serie C1 and Serie C2. This promotion was merely a temporary stepping-stone to greater achievements. If his development had been considered swift and meteoric, then what he would subsequently achieve was nothing short of sensational.

Collina only spent three seasons refereeing in the lower reaches of the Italian professional leagues, before being promoted to the exalted levels of Serie B and Serie A. It was around this time – the man himself cannot pinpoint the exact moment – that Collina started to suffer from acute alopecia. With all his hair falling out, Collina’s transformation as an exemplary official and a unique appearance was complete. A condition which could be potentially debilitating to a person’s confidence only served to enhance the growing reputation of a man who would become the ultimate controller of calcio.

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“I am a man of the rules.” This simple mantra may seem obvious for a referee to follow but like all of Collina’s matches, the statement was the mandate by which he officiated. If the rules were broken, he acted; if a player continued to challenge Collina’s decision, the Italian would reiterate that he was purely adhering to the rules and the player should accept that and walk away. The stare that accompanied this one-way conversation hastened the inevitable conclusion of the guilty party walking away.

“You have to be accepted on the field of play, not because you are the referee, but because people trust you.” Collina’s sound bites are always of common sense and simplicity. The words carry with them a weighty sentiment and yet are blindingly obvious when any fan of football takes a moment to consider them. By 1995, and after only 43 Serie A fixtures, Pierluigi Collina was placed on FIFA’s referees’ list.

Collina’s first big international task was the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as the Italian officiated in five fixtures including the final between Nigeria and Argentina. Following two bookings in the first 22 minutes, the game subsequently progressed into a classic with the African nation winning 3-2. The game featured many world-class players who would go on to further acquaintance with Collina, not least the Argentine side, where many of that silver medal team would meet England and Collina at the 2002 World Cup.

Following on from the Olympics, Collina officiated at his first World Cup in 1998. The tournament in France gave the Italian his maiden experience of the biggest football tournament in the world. Collina only officiated in two group games, including the 0-0 draw between the Netherlands and Belgium. The only notable incident was the sending off of Patrick Kluivert for a raised elbow. The tournament would, however, have an impact on Collina’s career in the next World Cup, thanks to Kim Nielsen’s pedantic sending off of David Beckham for a flick of the heel against Argentina’s Diego Simeone.

In 1999, Collina reached the pinnacle of club football officiating when he was selected to referee the Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. United were chasing the third and final piece of an unprecedented treble for an English club. Again, the fans from Manchester and Munich must have been delighted with the appointment of the Italian.

As a watching neutral at home, I was reassured that this game would be decided by the 22 players on the pitch and not by a refereeing error. Collina was by now engendering confidence in fans that was unlike anything previously experienced. As he comments in his own book: “The referee’s job is one of service.” Collina was by now providing a world-class service to fans and players across the globe.

The Champions League final has gone down in history as a classic game, albeit for what happened in injury time. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes, Manchester United were losing 1-0. Munich’s ribbons were being tied onto the trophy, when suddenly Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer both scored within three minutes of each other to secure the title. When asked about the favourite ever game he officiated, Collina always refers to this game and cites the “unbelievable noise which greeted United’s winner as ‘ike the roar of a lion” as the standout moment of his career.

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For me, however, it’s the footage of Collina walking around the Bayern players after the second goal went in. The clock was still ticking and the game had to be restarted, but the Bayern players were in a state of shock and disbelief. Sammy Kuffour was pounding the floor with his fist in anguish, the giant Carsten Jancker was distraught, tears streaming down his face, Oliver Kahn just sat on his goal-line with a distant stare, seeing but not believing, and Mehmet Scholl sat resting against the goal frame.

Amongst it all, Pierluigi Collina picked his way through the German side trying to resurrect the Bayern players, offering a hand those lying prostrate on the floor. Football has no right to be used as an analogy to war but, in that moment, Collina looked more like a military medic trying to ascertain the condition of his troops on a battlefield rather than a referee trying to complete a football match.

Following the Champions League final, Collina was widely regarded as the best referee in the world. He was also rapidly becoming England’s good luck charm over Germany. The Italian was in charge during England’s 1-0 victory over Germany in the 2000 European Championships. The next Anglo-German encounter of note saw Collina take charge of England’s 5-1 demolition of Germany during a 2002 World Cup qualifier in Munich.

As soon as the groups were drawn for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. the standout tie of the group stages was England against Argentina. So much history politically, but also more recently in a football sense: the Hand of God in 1986 and the sending off of Beckham stood out. This fixture would witness the reunion of Beckham and Simeone. From a figure of vilification to England captain, the Manchester United star had one last step to take for his redemption to be complete. Surely there was only one man who could manage this explosive fixture? Only one man had the personality to control this tinderbox of an encounter.

England fans were filled with trepidation. If a petition to have Collina officiate would, in any way, sway FIFA’s Refereeing Committee’s delegation of their officials, I think the entire football-loving population of England would have signed it. As it went, there’d be no repeat of the Kim Nielsen saga.

Collina only officiated three games at the 2002 World Cup but his third saw him reach the very pinnacle of international football when he was awarded the World Cup final. Germany were to play Brazil and the best referee on the planet was to officiate the biggest game between the two best international teams going. A booking for each team inside the first nine minutes set the tone by Collina and left the players in no doubt that the accountant from Bologna was going to referee the game and not the occasion.

Destined never to referee a European Championship final, the only other big game missing from Collina’s palmarès was the UEFA Cup final, but in 2004 that gap was filled when he was awarded the final in Gothenburg. Valencia defeated Marseille 2-0, a victory for the Spanish side that was partially due to Collina showing Fabien Barthez a straight red card on the stroke of half-time.

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By 2004, Collina had already been named the IFFNS World’s Best Referee a record six times between 1998 and 2003. Alongside this impressive global honour, he was also named Serie A’s Referee of the Year a record six times. The Italian would claim a seventh accolade in 2005. This collection of 13 honours over a nine-year period demonstrates the almost robotic consistency and desire to be the very best that he could be. Every fibre of his being was tuned towards facilitating the game of football in the most understated way he possibly could.

When Collina reached the age of 45, the Fedarazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) took the unprecedented step of raising the age limit of referees to 46 so that the Italian could referee in Serie A for a further year as well as officiate in the 2006 World Cup finals. However, in August 2005, Collina signed a sponsorship agreement with Opel. At the time, Opel was also a major sponsor of AC Milan and the FIGC barred Collina from refereeing in Serie A, citing a conflict of interest. Such was Collina’s integrity that he immediately handed in his resignation. A premature and unexpected scenario effectively ended Pierluigi Collina’s 28-year refereeing career.

As the infamous Calciopoli scandal, which embarrassed Italian football in 2006 demonstrated, Pierluigi Collina was incorruptible. The alleged preferential selection of referees to influence results in Italy’s top-flight during the 2004/05 season was primarily instigated by Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi. Numerous Serie A referees were implicated in the scandal and only Pierluigi Collina and Roberto Rosetti remained untainted. One of Collina’s greatest achievements was to incur the resentment of Moggi after a number of decisions given against Juventus in that fateful season appeared to favour Juve’s opponents. Moggi claimed that Collina was too “objective”.

Since his retirement, Collina has gone on to become a non-paid consultant to the Italian Football Referees Association and a member of UEFA’s Referees Committee. The man with an almost alien appearance had the aura of a being from another world. It’s as if every other referee who came before or since is compared to the mild-mannered Italian with the steely core, and so far every one of them has come up short. Such was the esteem with which every professional player held him, he is still the only referee who has been asked by a player – David Beckham – to swap shirts. 

In 2011, Collina was admitted to Italian football’s Hall of Fame. This is an honour which is all the more incredible when put into context by the fact that he was admitted before AC Milan’s legendary full-back Paolo Maldini and their 1982 World Cup-winning captain Dino Zoff, both of whom were inducted a year after.

The most appropriate way to sum up Collina’s legacy is to quote fellow referee Graham Poll. During preparation for the 2002 World Cup fixture between Japan and Turkey, Poll, who was the game’s fourth official, commented: “He drew their line-ups on a board, he told us how they would play, who the fiery characters were, where the likely flashpoints would be, what each assistant might expect to happen on his part of the pitch. He covered everything. It was incredible. It was preparation to the nth degree, and furthermore, he wasn’t wrong.” He rarely was. 

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

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