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Friday, March 23, 2012

The best referee in soccer history may be an Israeli

An 8,000 word article in The Guardian about legendary football referee Abraham Klein:

Abraham Klein had his hands in his pockets. 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".

Klein trusted his ability; so did Fifa. But anybody with an anima would have been nervous. He had refereed international games before. Only five of them, though, none anywhere near this stratosphere. This was a football opera, and his hands were trembling like a violin string. It gave a whole new meaning to the pre-match handshake. "I was very nervous," he says. "My hands were shaking, so I put them in my pockets. I did not want the players to see how my hands were moving. Then I took them out and I decided to be strong in my body and in my hand." He met both captains with an unyielding handshake, looked left and right and blew the whistle for the start of the match. His life had just taken an almighty fork in the road.

....Timisoara is often described as the most beautiful city in Romania. A piece in this paper spoke of its "bold, age-worn architecture", "handsome, cracked grandeur" and "wealth of genuinely grand Habsburg buildings". This gallery shows that your retinas could do a lot worse. Yet sometimes beauty is in the mind's eye of the beholder. There is no beauty for Abraham Klein. Timisoara is where he was born and spent his first 13 years, six of them during the second world war. "My memories from that city are so bad that when I was in Romania as a Uefa observer two or three times they ask me if I want to go to Timosara to see my city," he says. "I told them, 'I don't want to go'. What I remember, I don't want to remember again."

Klein eventually escaped Timisoara, one of 500 children who were put on a train to Holland. "My mother was still alive," he says. "Many of my family were killed in Auschwitz, in the concentration camps. My father was lucky that he left Romania in 1937 before the war starts. When the war starts it was impossible to leave the country with my mother. For five years it was very difficult for us. My mother had six sisters; we lived with them and the parents in two rooms. The situation was not the best." It's so far beyond our comprehension that there's no point even trying to empathise.

The article describes the superhuman efforts Klein would use to prepare for his games - learning the local language, scouting the teams, getting newspaper clippings, even mountain climbing to get used to the altitude before a game in Mexico City.
Abraham Klein arrived in Guadalajara in late May 1970. For the next two weeks, he ignored the not inconsiderable temptations of a fascinating city, and concentrated on his usual preparation. "I didn't leave my hotel for two weeks, even for one day, to see the city," he says. "I didn't see the city at all, only the hotel and the stadium. I want to concentrate only on the game. I know that I cannot have a bad game. It was very important for me because I know that, coming from a small country, I have a big responsibility to the Fifa members who appointed me to the game. Later I ask Sir Stanley Rous or Ken Aston (the Fifa president and chairman of the referees' committee, respectively) why they chose me. I was a very young referee with no experience, only five international games. Aston always told me: we trust you, you are honest, you make good impression and you are in good physical condition."

Klein wasn't plucked out of thin air; he was picked because he could cope with thin air. He had shown that during the Mexico Olympics in 1968, and Fifa knew he was fit enough to cope with Mexico's oppressive heat. England's Terry Cooper would lose 12 pounds in the match. For Klein it was squeaky-bum time in more ways than one. He still had the problem of being perceived as the boy scout in 'Nam. The players of Brazil and England did not know who he was. "In the first moment, they look me: 'Who is standing here in the middle of the field?' They knew nothing about me. I try from the first moment to respect the players; I look their eyes. A little later during the game they understood that they must also respect my refereeing."

He controlled the game calmly from the first whistle. It flowed gracefully from end to end, a festival of goodwill and mutual respect, and is still one of the World Cup's iconic contests. "A referee is feeling during the game and after the game, how is he refereeing, how is his performance. If you make a mistake, you alone know immediately. You feel it: you feel it because of the behaviour of the player, you feel it when you watch the coach. I'm not talking about [José] Mourinho; he always protests against the referees. You have some coaches who you respect. If they wave their hands once every 10 years you think about it. But I feel very good in that Brazil/England game."

...The letter cut straight to the point. It was written in 1995 by Ken Aston, the former chairman of the Fifa Referees' Committee, and addressed to Klein.

"Thanks you for your book … It is a great shame that you made a great mistake in your refereeing career. A very serious mistake which you could never recover, and one which everyone connected with the appointment of referees at international level remembered. And what you ask was this great and serious mistake? Simply that you were an Israeli. I must tell you that had I still been chairman of the Fifa Referees' Committee in 1982, you would without any doubt have been carrying the whistle and not the flag. I was happy to have been able to support you throughout your career simply because you deserve such support."
Politics cost Klein the World Cup final in 1978 (and perhaps 1982), a place in the 1974 tournament, and permeated his career. There was, at first, a mistrust of a referee from a small league, although that kind of prejudice was the least of Klein's worries. In 1981, when he went to French Guiana as part of the Fifa Coca-Cola Project, he was originally refused admission because Israelis were not allowed. When the rest of the Fifa party said they would get on the first return flight unless Klein was allowed in, the authorities relented. Far more damagingly, the Munich massacre of 1972, in which members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed, meant it was not safe for Klein to go to West Germany for the World Cup two years later.

...Argentina needed to beat Italy to stay in Buenos Aires for the second group stage. In his History of the World Cup, Cris Freddi said that Argentina's "excesses were kept in check by the best referee in the world". Italy won 1-0. "The crowd were very upset. I had no problem with the players; they respect me. The crowd, you know, they pay and when they pay they can tell you whatever they think about you and your mother."

Klein turned down a couple of penalty appeals just before the break, which led to vicious abuse either side of half-time. This time his hands were not in his pockets. He strode off the pitch knowing he had made the right decisions, a proud monument of conviction and moral courage. "When I'm on the pitch, only two things are important to me: being fair to both teams and making my decisions bravely," he told Simon Kuper in Ajax, The Dutch, The War. "I think all referees are fair, but not all of them are brave, probably."

He looked the beast in the eye and did not blink. "There was nothing more impressive in this World Cup," wrote Brian Glanville, "than the way he stood between his linesmen at half-time in the Argentina-Italy game, scorning the banshee whistling of the incensed crowd."

This is not to say Klein was entirely unaffected by the abuse. He is human and he needs not to be hated. "The feeling is very bad," he says of his reaction at half-time. To avert a similar reception, he decided to delay his return on to the field. Instead of leading the players out, he let the Argentina players go first; his return was lost in the hero worship. It was an ingenious and highly successful manoeuvre.

"I felt stronger in the second half because I know all my decisions were correct. I feel very good with this. Even after the game, they told me, 'don't go out, the crowd is waiting for you'. I told them, 'I'm not afraid'. I was never afraid in my career. I know that the crowd will do nothing after the game. I was not afraid to do what a referee must do in the game. There was no problem."
...There is no arrogance, just pride and still, perhaps, a hint of incredulity at this unbelievable life. He does not need the validation of being called the best referee of all time. He gets validation every time he looks in his museum, or every time he flies to a different part of the world and is introduced as the man who refereed England v Brazil in 1970. It's enough to say that Klein was one of the greatest referees of all time. And that he has lived a life like no other.
I don't know much about soccer, but if you are a fan, print it out and read it at your leisure.
(h/t Raanana Gamer)