“Go on, open the envelope and see who you got,” a Hungarian colleague urged him. The referees for the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico were being told which games they would be officiating. “I can’t. I’m nervous,” was the reply. Of course, he opened the envelope. England versus Brazil. The game of the tournament – the defending champion versus the heir apparent, the cradle of soccer versus the land of soccer, the Three Lions versus the Brazilian wonder team. Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore versus Pelé, Tostao, Jairzinho and Gerson. And inside the envelope, in black magic marker, the name Klein. Abraham Klein.
Yes, the young Israeli referee had impressed two years earlier at the Mexico Olympics, but no one could figure out why he drew the most important game. “Without a doubt, FIFA was taking a risk,” Klein recounts in his Haifa apartment overlooking the Mediterranean. “The excitement only grew. As I took to the field at Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara I realized my hands were in my pockets, shaking with nervousness,” he says. “Bobby Moore and Carlos Alberto shook each other’s hands and then mine, those of an unknown referee from a small country in his first World Cup. The players always check out the referee, and these were the greatest players. Pelé, of course, and Charlton. I took my hands out, shook theirs firmly, showed some confidence.” Ken Aston, the great English referee who invented the red and yellow cards, made the right choice. It was one of the greatest games in soccer history – “a concert”, Klein says repeatedly. And don’t forget the unbelievable save by English goalkeeper Gordon Banks on Pelé’s header. Pelé, by the way, became a friend. “I first met Klein at the England game in 1970, which was the most important game on the way to the title. It was a tough game, but he controlled it completely,” Pelé wrote in the introduction to Klein’s autobiography “Aman Hamashrukit” (“The Whistle Artist”). Klein rose higher in world soccer than any other Israeli. Three World Cups, including some of the most important games in the tournament’s history; two Olympics; the Little World Cup, a prestigious 1972 tournament celebrating 150 years of Brazilian independence; and countless internationals. He served in various roles in FIFA and the European governing body, UEFA. The sport’s greats are his personal friends, from Pelé to former FIFA President Sepp Blatter. On March 29 Klein turns 82, yet he looks far younger than his age and remains impressively athletic. And he still remembers everything – even the name of every head of Bermuda’s referees’ association. He’s also a gentleman, who insisted: “If you come by train, tell me and I’ll pick you up.” Klein also officiated between Italy and Argentina in 1978, and between Brazil and Italy in 1982, maybe the greatest game in history. He was a linesman in the wonderful final that year. Still, England versus Brazil remains his favorite. “It had everything: importance, history, tremendous media interest, the top players,” Klein says. “And it was a wonderful game, a concert of soccer”.