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No Argie Bargy with the master of the whistle

By Liam Murphy

It doesn’t matter which sport is being played the quality of the game depends  as much on  the ability of the referee as the level of performance of the players. Having done a stint with the whistle myself I tend to observe the referee as much as the players while watching football games, soccer or Gaelic.

Pierluigi Collina was referee in the UEFA Cup 4th Round home tie between Celtic and Stuttgart in February 2003 at Celtic Park. The referee in the previous round against Celta Vigo at Celtic Park was a Frenchman Claude Columbo who was so poor that he made Scottish referees look good. It was a case of having the worst followed by the best.

At the end of the 20th century, Collina, now retired,  was widely perceived to be the best referee in the history of football. Collina was a wonderful referee, surely the best of his generation; beyond that, we don’t really know. His  height, piercing eyes and baldness literally put him head and shoulders above all other referees of his era.

Earlier in the century a man of very small stature from Israel, a country then regarded as a football backwater, become known as the best. Unlike some of the other great referees, Collina and Jack Taylor of England, Abraham Klein did not have physical authority. He was 5ft 5in, a fraction over 10st. But he could impose himself in other ways. He was a big believer in body language; a firm handshake, a perfectly upright stance, a decisive signal or whistle; and eye contact. It soon became apparent he did not suffer indiscipline. He was the PE teacher you knew not to take liberties with.

Alan Robinson, the overseas and services secretary of the English Referees’ Association from 1968 to 2004, described him as “the master of the whistle”.

Abraham Klein was not supposed to be a referee. He loved football and wanted to be a footballer. His father had played for MTK Budapest in Hungary; Klein was good, but not up to that standard. In the mid-50s, on a break from army duty, his parents sent him to buy some trousers from a tailor called Jonas. Jonas was about to leave to referee an amateur game. He told Klein to come with him, and that he would make his trousers after the game.

Jonas sprained an ankle during the match. He asked Klein to step in.

“I told him, ‘I don’t know the laws of the game’.

‘But you’ve played the game?’

I told him, ‘Yes I was a player, not the best but I know what is a foul.’

So he said, ‘The laws of the game are very simple, it’s not university. Somebody makes a foul, you whistle.’

‘That’s all?’ That’s all the laws?’

‘That’s enough for this game.’

Klein showed such natural aptitude for refereeing, and such enjoyment of it, that he soon took the formal refereeing examinations. He would catch up with Jonas more than two decades later. Jonas later moved to New York, and found Klein among 60,000 people at a New York Cosmos game. “But he didn’t have my trousers …”

By then, Klein was wearing the referee’s trousers on the field of play. He rose through the ranks, refereeing army games, Israeli league games – and even the first meeting between teams from West Germany and Israel.

He had refereed his first Israeli league game in 1958, at the age of 24; six years later he graduated to international football, when Israel played a friendly against the Netherlands. In 1965, at the age of 31, he was given his first major game: Italy v Poland in Rome. It was on a scale previously unimaginable. The biggest grounds in Israel held 20,000; now he would be officiating a World Cup qualifier in front of 80,000. Klein decided to take matters into his own hands – a week before the match, on his own initiative and out of his own pocket, he went to watch Roma play Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico to sample the atmosphere.

He was not shocked a week later when he returned for the Poland game. Klein’s preparation was thorough. He learned as much as possible about the players – this in an age before  the internet, and when phone calls overseas were extremely expensive. Klein wrote to a friend in Poland, asking for information on their team, and persuaded Gazzetta dello Sport to send him a series of cuttings. He learned that Gigi Rivera was a star player “and that the defenders try all the time to kick him”. Klein, always a keen exponent of the advantage rule vowed to play it wherever possible. Three of Italy’s goals in a 6-1 win came from advantages. The Fifa observers at the ground took notice.

His handling of the England v Brazil game at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1970 was almost perfection. Abraham Klein had his hands in his pockets at the start to conceal the trembling. He was 36 years old and about to referee his first World Cup game. To one side stood Pele, Carlos Alberto, Rivelino and Jairzinho; to the other Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks. This was the grandest game, between the favourites Brazil and the holders England; the final before the final. The referee was an unknown Israeli. One report said that appointing him was “like sending a boy scout to Vietnam”. During the game Pele dived when tackled by Alan Mullery. Klein waved play on!

He was given the Argentina v Italy game in the 1978 finals. A couple of unpopular decisions just before half time had the Argentinian crowd whistling. Instead of leading the teams out for the second half he allowed the Argentinians to run out and receive the crowd’s adulation while he followed unnoticed. Italy won 1 – 0

In the Mirror, Frank McGhee said “he didn’t make a single wrong decision in the whole 90 minutes of a marvellous match … My most abiding memory of the match is the way both teams queued up at the end to shake hands with Klein. They knew, we knew, he had done most to make it a match to  remember.”

However, the Argentinians ensured he did not get the final. Antrim’s John Gough had a similar experience when he refereed the 1982 All Ireland final between Dublin and Galway. He fearlessly applied the rules which resulted in three Dublin players being sent off. Despite being regarded as one of the elite referees at the time he never appeared in another final.

Players can easily be frustrated by a referee’s inadequacy. This happened Celtic legend Bertie Auld on one occasion. He approached the official, Tiny Wharton just as they came out for the second half

Bertie to Tiny Wharton (referee) – “If I call you an arsehole Mr Wharton will I get booked?”

Tiny. – “Yes Mr Auld. You’d be in trouble.”

Bertie.- “What if I just thought you were an arsehole, what would happen?”

Tiny. – “If you just thought it nothing would happen”

Bertie. – “Well Mr Wharton, I think you’re an arsehole.”

I don’t think Tiny would have appreciated the humour but one referee I know has a  good sense of humour. A top GAA official who has just recently retired, was a good communicator with the players. He was a believer of the advantage rule and was known to run up to a player who had unsuccessfully tried to decapitate an opponent, “Don’t think I didn’t see that you boyo. Next time you’re off!”

On another occasion he approached Crossmaglen player, Francie Bellew, whose bone crunching tackle had left his opposite number in a heap on the ground. Brandishing a yellow card he said,“ Francie, I’m afraid I’m going to have to book you. That was a very late tackle.”

“Jeez Pat! I got to him as quick as I could!”

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