It is the day before Valentine’s Day and the perfect time to honour a man used to giving out more cards than most. On his 60th birthday, we pay tribute to the greatest referee of all, Pierluigi Collina.
For many youngsters now, the name Pierluigi Collina will mean nothing to them. For others, even the mention of his name will bring classic football memories flooding back. The iconic names of Italian football during the 90s, Gabrielle Batistuta, Pavel Nedved and Roberto Baggio were all superstars at various times, but there was one constant in the middle of the pitch. Collina.
The unbreakable stare. The towering presence. The unmistakable bald head. Nobody messed with him and in the years way before VAR, his decision was final. However, his refereeing career almost didn’t happen as he was diagnosed with a rare form of alopecia at the age of 24. Collina lost all his hair in 10 days but he bounced back and rose through the ranks, establishing himself as the finest referee in Serie A.
It may have been his piercing blue eyes, his defiant stare or simply the fact that he towered over most players but he had the respect of almost every player in the league. When there was a disagreement, he was there. When there were handbags, he would diffuse the situation. And when things got tasty, he was not afraid of shouting. This gave him an aura that no other official had. He was almost untouchable.
This aura led to the Italian giant being appointed by FIFA as one of their elite referees. Perhaps his most famous game came in 1999 as he was the man in the middle for the Champions League final when Manchester United scored two late goals to beat Bayern Munich and secure the treble. It was a historic game, yet nobody remembers Collina’s performance, just what you want from a referee in a big game.
“I will remember it for different reasons. First of all the reaction of the Manchester United supporters when they scored the second goal, it was an incredible noise, like a lion’s roar.” Collina said to the Daily Telegraph in 2008. “Second, there was the reaction of the Bayern players, their disappointment as they fell down on the pitch after conceding that goal. The contrasting reactions of happiness and sadness and the sad eyes of Lothar Matthaus when he looked at the trophy.”
Graham Poll, the fourth official in a game that the Italian was refereeing at the 2002 World Cup, tells a tale of just how much detail he went into before a game. Poll told football365, “He drew their line-ups on a board. He told us how they would play, who the fiery characters were, where the likely flash points would be, what each assistant might expect to happen on his part of the pitch. He covered everything. It was incredible. It was preparation to the nth degree. And, furthermore, he wasn’t wrong.”
In that same tournament, he would referee the biggest game on the planet, the World Cup final. Legendary German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was not best pleased with the appointment, telling the Irish Times at the time, "Collina is a world-class referee, there's no doubt about that, but he doesn't bring luck, does he?"
This was in reference to the two previous games Collina and Kahn had met. The 1999 Champions League final and the 5-1 thumping of Germany by England, in one of the Three Lions greatest results in their history. Unfortunately for Kahn, Collina proved to be bad luck again as Ronaldo scored twice to hand Brazil their fifth World Cup.
The only referee in the world to have appeared on the cover of a video game, PES 2003, he became one of football’s celebrities, also refereeing the UEFA Cup final in 2004. He won IFFHS World’s Best Referee in six consecutive seasons between 1998 and 2003 and is simply the greatest of all time.
The only man who made refereeing cool. Happy Birthday, Pierluigi Collina.