David Beckham is bringing the finest players of his generation to Manchester for his Unicef match for children on Saturday. Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ryan Giggs will be on the field - and an equally iconic star will be in charge of the action. As the saying goes, “Italians do it better”. The cuisine, the cars, the fashion and some of the world’s most innovative architecture come from Italy. In the world of football things are no different. Italy has produced two of the greatest goalkeepers the game has ever seen in Gianluigi Buffon and Dino Zoff. They can boast defenders such as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, and we should not forget the great entertainers of the Italian game, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. But among the superstars who made Serie A famous, one man stands apart. He is a man whose tall frame and distinctive, intimidating features helped him gain the upmost respect from all of the aforementioned superstars. This man was the greatest ever referee: Pierluigi Collina.
Collina was like many Italian boys growing up; he had a real passion for all things football. Like many of us, Collina was not the most talented player and he had to combine playing for his local amateur side with studying in his native Bologna. At 6’2”, Collina had the perfect build to play in the centre of defence for his local side. During his time as a student at the University of Bologna, he took a referee’s course at the age of just 17, something at which he excelled. After graduating with an economics degree in 1988, Collina’s refereeing career took off as he found himself officiating in Serie C1 and C2. It wouldn’t be long until he earned a promotion to Serie B. As Collina’s career progressed he was diagnosed with a severe case of alopecia, resulting in complete and permanent hair loss. His bald head became one of his most distinguishing features. By the mid 1990s, Collina was a Serie A regular and was quickly making a name for himself as one of the best officials in the league. He was no average referee and quickly gained the respect of players, managers and fans. If he made a decision it was final and boy did everyone know it. If any of the egos in the Italian game tried to argue, a long, hard stare from Collina’s razor-sharp blue eyes made them realise they were fighting a losing battle. Collina towered over most players and was an intimidating character on the field. He could be seen barking back at players and even confronting them when the handbags came out. More often than not, the players in question would back down and walk away. On the field, Collina’s aura made him the boss. By the time the new millennium came around, Collina was a Serie A icon and famous worldwide. He was selected for European football’s biggest stage, taking charge of the 1999 Champions League final in Barcelona between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. He was then awarded the most prestigious game in world football, the 2002 World Cup final in Japan, as Germany squared off against Brazil. Such was the consistency of his refereeing that two years later he was also handed the 2004 UEFA Cup final. Collina had well and truly cemented his place as the world’s greatest and, if there was a marquee game being played, chances were Collina would be the man in the middle. By the mid-2000s, Collina had won IFFHS’s best referee of the year award award six times in a row. He was a pioneer, truly changing the way the game is refereed. The last time we would see his trademark wide eyed glare would be in 2005 as Collina called time on an illustrious career at the age of 45. It was a year ahead of schedule. Such was his reputation that the Italian Football Federation extended the age limit for referees from 45 to 46 in order to allow Collina to continue to officiate. But it wouldn’t be Italy without a little controversy and Collina sought an early exit after a conflict with the federation over a sponsorship deal in August 2005. When his professionalism was brought into question, Collina decided to walk. “After 28 years I have decided to hand in my resignation,” said Collina. “People must believe in a referee. In the end, we have all lost out. I have slept less these last few nights than on the eve of the World Cup final”.
After Collina hung up his whistle in 2005, he used his economics degree to start a successful career as a financial advisor. He kept in touch with the game by doing some media work, public speaking and he also found time to release his first book Le Mie Regole del Gioco (The Rules of the Game). In 2011, he was inducted into the Italian football hall of fame, an honour to accompany the other outstanding awards he achieved throughout his career. But Collina’s body and mind never truly left the game. He became the head of referees for the Ukrainian football federation and continues to make appearances at charity matches. On Saturday, when Sir Alex Ferguson leads out a team packed with former Manchester United players and Carlo Ancelotti tries to combine the attacking talents of Ronaldinho, Patrick Kluivert, Luís Figo and Zinedine Zidane into the same side, at least they will have an official worthy of the exalted company: the greatest referee ever.
Source: The Guardian