Commentary

What we can learn from Pierluigi Collina

I think very few people will debate that Pierluigi Collina was the best referee of the planet or at least for the last 30 years. I met him for the first time in 1995 for his ever first international assignment for an International Military game. It was in Ankara and I was there for a meeting of the Referee Committee that I chaired then. When I first met him, I realized something different than any other referee I ever met before – his looks. His performance in the first game was not anything spectacular – Turkish Armed Forces NT vs. French Armed Forces NT. I met him several times later in life but I can never forget his look.

Collina is very popular with Turkish fans since not a single Turkish team whether it was the NT or a club team ever lost a single game that Collina refereed.

His bright and big blue eyes are the first things you notice when you look at Pierluigi. Collina contracted early in his refereeing career a severe form of alopecia, resulting in the permanent loss of all his facial hair, giving him his distinctive bald appearance and earning the nickname Kojak. This god-given look helped him a lot with the teams and players he met for the first time. Definitely the look brought him an incredible charisma and a natural air of authority. You could rarely see Pierluigi smiling during games.  His scary look or stare helped him a lot in his first years of international refereeing. He always kept eye contact with players when managing them. While warning, cautioning or sending off a player, you miss the boat if you lose eye contact with him or her. Clearly you cannot be the best referee on the planet just with your looks. 

He is well educated and very smart. He speaks Spanish and English fluently as well as his native tongue Italian and French. Clearly, knowing Spanish well helps him to understand Portuguese. Communicating with the players in their own language is a great asset in player management. 

He was always well respected by the players even though like all referees he made mistakes and some of them were key match incidents. Building up respectability over years is a very difficult task especially if you are a soccer referee and he exactly did that. Respect is not a derivative of fear but rather matures through objectivity over many games that you manage. During the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, two referees came out unscathed: Collina and Roberto Rosetti.  Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi said Juve did not want Collina because he was too “objective."

At the end of the famous Champions League final in 1999 between Bayern Munich and Manchester United, when United scored two goals in overtime (2-1), not a single a Munich player showed any negative reaction or disrespect to Collina, but Collina understanding the frustration of the Bayern players gave those lying on the field a hand. 

He was always exceptionally fit and detests those referees who struggle to pass the physical fitness test. He never played soccer at an advanced level but understands both the letter, the spirit of the Laws as well as what “football expects.”  Some people say that in order to be a good referee you have to play the game at an advanced level. Unfortunately, among the best in the world, there very few if any who played soccer professionally. You have to understand the game and be smart. That is the basic requirement. 

Collina was famous for preparing for each game meticulously.  With his crew, he would sit for hours watching clips to understand how both teams played and what kind of tricks the players had up their sleeves. Once you are so well prepared for the game, then very few things will surprise you during the game and this will be reflected into your management as great self-confidence.

Recently Collina said in an interview: "Let's talk about courage, about the courage to decide, to take difficult, important decision, so important that they put the referee in a situation where he does not get noticed, where he becomes a leading character, but not the leading character in a match. The best referee is the referee who has this conviction, the one who makes the decisions even when it would be easier not to, putting the problem off until later, until the end of the match.” 

I shared these sentences on social media with some local referees and asked for their comments. All of them focused on the courage part. Clearly, a referee sometimes has to make very difficult decisions like a red card or a penalty kick that can change the outcome of the game.  Unfortunately, it is true that referees sometimes chicken out to make courageous calls. What Collina is trying to say is that you have to have courage to be a good referee – which is obvious – but when making that courageous call you have to be unnoticed and become a leading character -- and not the leading character of the match. That only referees like Collina who built up a reputation of being objective and fair throughout all their careers can manage.

Naturally, a red card in the first five minutes of the game or a penalty kick awarded in the last few seconds of the game are very difficult decisions to make. Even if they are black and white correct decisions, when the referee makes such a courageous decision there will be considerable dissent. It is the Collinas of our beautiful game who will make such decisions and still stay unnoticed. Because only he and maybe a few others who can sell such calls with ease have an aurora of trust and confidence surrounding their character that is nurtured by objectivity and fairness. If you think that it is the bright blue eyes and the Kojak look of Collina that made the difference, then you are wrong, my friend.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.

Photo: Erwin Otten/Pics United/Icon Sportswire

3 comments about "What we can learn from Pierluigi Collina".
  1. R2 Dad, May 9, 2020 at 3:05 a.m.

    Excellent column, AG. I am not at all surprised the retired professional players do not want to officiate--they don't respect referees so see no attraction to becoming one. Was there ever an ex-player that officiated at a top level? 
    Collina had a calming effect on players due to his relaxed yet firm disposition on the field. One of the best!

  2. Mike Lynch, May 9, 2020 at 10:27 a.m.

    Excellent article Ahmet! A couple-few thoughts:
    -Collina mentioned the referee needs to be a leading character, but not THE leading character. Very important difference. 
    -Collina and his crew prepared diligently and specifically for each match (style of play, past experiences on how a team plays, including playing the rules for their advantage). Excellent best practice for the best of the best.  Even if not able to prepare beforehand or if a team's tactics have changed dramatically from their prep, the crew can be better prepared by closely observing the style of play within the first 10-15 minutes of the match, just as the players and coaches do. For example, if a team plays an attacking style getting lots of players forward, their prep and/or their experience would have them extra attentive for tactical fouling in transition.  
    -With the shortage of former players getting into the referee profession, articles like these are what's needed to demonstrate the immense role good officiating by good officials adds to the game.  

  3. Kent James, May 9, 2020 at 11:11 a.m.

    I think the primary reason you don't see top flight players becoming top flight referees is the time conflict; it is very difficult to both play and referee.  I did this for many years, but you have to prioritize one or the other (I always prioritized playing, and refereed when I could).  When you have games to both play and referee, if you're at a high level, they often happen at the same time (or there is a conflict of interest because you can't ref games in the same league you play in).  And if you try to do them on the same day (or back to back), if you ref first you won't be a peak fitness for your game, and if you play first, you risk injury and screwing your assignor (and the latter becomes more likely with age...).  


    If you wait until your playing career is done (say in your mid 30's), that's pretty late to start refereeing if you want to reach a high level (pro).  On the other hand, I think it is helpful to have played at a relatively high level (college, e.g.).  That being said, playing at a high level (or at all) is not absolutely necessary; there are some very good referees with little playing experience, but that's a smaller group. 

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