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Kojak, The Golden Whistle

Let’s admit it, it takes a special kind of mentality to referee football at the highest level. Enforcing the laws of the game and managing players’ tempers while keeping up with play for 90 nonstop minutes is an unenviable task. On the sidelines, football referees deal with harassment from rabid supporters and 24/7 media criticism, aware that any great refereeing performance will likely go unacknowledged.

This reality has been the norm for all referees in the game but one. Nobody has been able to stand out and ascend to the mainstream culture of football quite like Pierluigi Collina.

Prodigy

Born in Bologna, Italy, Pierluigi Collina had dreams of making it as a professional footballer, but by the time he was 17, he realized that those dreams were far-fetched and, taking a friend’s advice, attended a refereeing course instead.

He untapped a particular talent for the craft, and it became clear that he was born to officiate. With his tall, imposing appearance and authoritative nature, Collina was the refereeing equivalent of a wunderkind. After honing his skills in the lower leagues, he was promoted to the upper echelons of Italian football in 1991.

His rise coincided with Serie A’s emergence as Europe’s premier competition, and the world’s eyes were fixed on Italy. The peninsula was brimming with elite talent, and in the middle of it all was Collina.

Sergeant Kojak

Standing six foot two, with a distinctive bald head caused by alopecia early in his life and intense, steely blue eyes, he wasn’t to be intimidated by the likes of Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio. Through his ability to assert calmness and command respect, he soon established himself as Italy’s best referee during the mid-1990s.

At the 1996 Olympics, Collina made his debut at a major international tournament, even refereeing the final. Bigger assignments would come thick and fast. He made his World Cup bow in 1998, and by the time the next cycle rolled around, he had become the best referee in the world and FIFA’s most trusted official.

Collina would go on to take charge of the iconic 1999 Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, as well as the 2002 World Cup final. He was a key figure in many high-profile games during the early 2000s, and rarely did he put a foot wrong.

Legacy

Collina was so influential that the Italian FA extended the retirement age by a year just so he could referee one more season and officiate at the 2006 World Cup, but following a perceived conflict of interests regarding a sponsorship deal, Collina retired.

He was named the World’s Best Referee by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics six consecutive years (from 1998 to 2003), the most by any referee. UEFA created the role of Chief Refereeing Officer in 2010 and appointed Collina to the post, which he held while also serving as a consultant to the Italian Football Referees Association. It is unheard of for an official to be considered a legend, but if anyone deserves that title, it’s Pierluigi Collina.

 

Illustration by @inakivector.

This story was featured in one of our newsletters.