Football referees are programmed as a thick-skinned species. Modern-day officials, whilst trying desperately to prevent multi-millionaire ball kickers from bending the rules, are often degraded as mere props for many insurrectionist football fans to hurl belligerent abuse at for 90 minutes. Even at the summit of professional football, officials are thrown into the lion’s den at feeding time, with the knowledge that a single poorly judged decision in a fraction of a second could leave their career out in the cold on the bench.
It’s a task that certainly requires strong willpower, emphatic authority, impeccable judgement and no doubt impenetrable confidence. It is a rarity for a referee to make their own personal mark on the world’s most popular sport, as many disappear into the background along with the echo of their own full-time whistle. However, one official stood head and shoulders above the rest, creating a legacy that would result in him being forever remembered for his services to the game of football.
On the surface, Pierluigi Collina presents a somewhat chilling semblance. The polished baldness and piercing gaze from a pair of striking blue eyes give him the similitude to an old Bond villain. However, instead of drug smuggling or assassination attempts, his mission was to ensure that the rules of the beautiful game were adhered to both religiously and fairly. He did a bloody good job of it, too.
Born in Bologna in 1960, Collina was raised with humble roots by a mother who worked as a teacher and a father with a vocation in the Italian Ministry of Defence. Perhaps the influence of his parents’ professions helped mould the young man into the discerning rule-enforcer who helped break the stigma surrounding football officials. Also a participant of National Service, this only helped further instil the no-nonsense discipline that he transferred in his behaviour as an official. This fervent demeanour was an ally to Collina in his years as a referee, helping the Italian to yield excellent results on the football pitch.
Collina’s love of football can be traced back to his early days as a player, playing for a local team during his teenage years as a centre-half. A realisation hit at 17 that he wasn’t gifted enough to feature in the professional game as a player, but a change in perspective resulted in the Italian taking a referee’s course. Collina’s superb aptitude at officiating was quickly distinguished, and within three years he found himself refereeing at the highest level of regional matches, before subsequently progressing to third-division Serie C1 and C2 fixtures.
After three seasons and a promotion to the dizzying heights of officiating Serie B and Serie A matches, Collina continued to make an impact. By making good use of his military acumen, paired with a quiet yet firm jurisdiction, he rapidly earned the respect of players under his control. No one dared challenge his judgements, and those who did were met with the infamous icy stare and indirectly reminded that Collina always had the final word.
Sadly, the earnest referee suffered an acute form of alopecia, causing a permanent loss of all of his facial hair. This transformation gave Collina the unique appearance that made the Italian so recognisable in the football world, just another of his defining features that have kept him in the spotlight for so many years. It can most certainly be speculated that few other officials in world football have been able to assert authority just by their physical appearance.
In 1995, and after just 43 Serie A fixtures, Collina had earned a spot on FIFA’s official referees’ list. His first international outing would be the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where he officiated in five fixtures, including the final between Argentina and Nigeria. Two years later, the Italian was named amongst a roster of referees to feature in the 1998 World Cup in France, before being selected as the official for the 1999 thriller Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, in which United won 2-1 in injury time.
By this stage in his career, Collina was widely regarded as the best referee of the modern game. Never once overwhelmed by the high-profile fixtures or undermined by superstar players, his sole focus always remained fairly facilitating the rules of the game, and never let the importance of the occasion taint his judgement. Collina went on to referee the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, and then the 2004 UEFA cup final in Gothenburg. He became particularly favoured by England supporters, after officiating in two games against Germany in 2000 and 2002, both of which were comfortably won by England.
Even when Italian football plundered into turmoil amidst the Calciopoli scandal, Collina remained incorruptible. When news broke of alleged preferential selection of referees to influence results in Italy’s top flight during the 2004/05 season, Collina proved one of only two officials that avoided sanctioning. It was this kind of honesty that made him a real crowd-pleaser and a pundit favourite. His popularity grew as he was soon featuring on advertisements and computer game covers, almost transforming him into a household name.
Collina’s fastidious, almost mechanical consistency has remained unrivalled since his retirement. Having been named the IFFNS World’s Best Referee a record six times between 1998 and 2003, he also collected the accolade of Serie A’s Referee of the Year seven times, also a record. One of the most admirable traits about the Italian is his transparent passion for enforcing the rules of football. Every decision he made was rich in integrity for the beautiful game and his perpetual endeavours as a peacekeeper are what made Pierluigi Collina such a mastermind of his profession.
Collina’s refereeing career terminated abruptly and somewhat prematurely at age 45, after agreeing to a new sponsorship deal with Opel. The Fedarazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) tried to accommodate him further by raising the age limit of referees to 46 in order for Italian to be legible to officiate in the 2006 World Cup finals, as well as to continue his role in Serie A matches. Unfortunately for Collina, Opel was a major sponsor of AC Milan, so he was subsequently barred for refereeing Serie A fixtures to prevent a conflict of interest. Upon news of this, Collina handed in his resignation, which brought an end to a highly decorated 28-year career.
Continuing to make his mark on the game, he has gone on to become a non-paid consultant to the Italian Football Referees Association and a member of UEFA’s Referees Committee. Few referees in the history of the game have been able to command the same calibre of respect that Collina sustained over his decade as a FIFA listed referee. To conclude his long list of recognitions and possibly the icing on the cake, Collina was awarded a place in Italian football’s Hall of Fame; almost unheard of that a referee could be held in such high regard. As quoted in his book “a referee’s job is one of service,” and it was Pierluigi Collina’s services that made him a truly brilliant asset to the beautiful game.