As the saying goes ‘Italians Do It Better’, the cuisine, the cars, the fashion and some of the world’s most innovative architecture. It’s all in Italy. As for the world of football things are no different. Italy has produced arguably the greatest goalkeepers the game has ever seen in Gianluigi Buffon and Dino Zoff. Italy can boast defenders such as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, renowned for their class and making the art of defending stylish. Lest we forget the great entertainers of the Italian game, some of the greatest number 10’s in Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. But forgetting the superstars who made Serie A famous, there is one man who stands above them all. He is a man whose tall frame and distinctive, intimidating features, helped him gain the upmost respect from all 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 however, Collina was not the most talented player and again like many of us, Collina would have to combine playing for his local amateur side while 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, Collina would find himself taking a referee’s course at the age of just 17, something he took to like a duck to water. After graduating with an economics degree in 1988, Collina’s refereeing career also 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 went from strength to strength 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 and one that remains famous today. By the mid 1990’s, Collina was a Serie A regular and quickly making a name for himself as one of the best officials in the league. He was no average referee and this quickly gained him the respect of players, managers and fans alike. If he made a decision it was final and boy did everyone know it. If some of the egos in the Italian game tried arguing, all it took was a long hard stare of those razor sharp blue eyes and they soon knew 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 with their tails between their legs. On the field, Collina’s aura made him the boss.
By the time the new millennium came around, Collin was a Serie A icon and famous worldwide. He was selected for European footballs 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 officiating. By the mid 2000’s, Collina had scooped ‘The World’s Best Referee’ award six times. 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 (FIGC) had extended the age limit for referees from 45 to 46 in order to allow Collina to officiate at the 2006 World Cup. But it wouldn’t be Italy without a little controversy and Collina sought an early exit after a conflict with the FIGC over a sponsorship deal in August 2005. When his professionalism was brought into question, Collina was having none of it and decided to walk. In an interview with BBC Sport he let his feelings be known. "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 post-football 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’. In 2011, Collina was inducted into the Italian football hall of fame, an honour to accompany the other outstanding awards he has achieved throughout his career.
But Collina’s body and mind never truly left the game as he made appearances refereeing various charity matches. He is now the head of referees for the Ukrainian Football Federation. One thing is for sure, they don’t make referees in the mould of Pierluigi Collina anymore, and he will always be remembered as The World’s Greatest Referee.
By Giovanni Dougall