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Italy's Cristiano Zanetti (R) is restrained by teammate Damiano Tommasi (C) after receiving a yellow card from referee Byron Moreno during a second round World Cup Finals match against South Korea in Taejon, June 18, 2002. (© Reuters Photographer / Reuter/REUTERS)
Italy's Cristiano Zanetti (R) is restrained by teammate Damiano Tommasi (C) after receiving a yellow card from referee Byron Moreno during a second round World Cup Finals match against South Korea in Taejon, June 18, 2002. (© Reuters Photographer / Reuter/REUTERS)

The tragic tale of Byron Moreno, “the worst referee, ever” Add to ...

Some World Cup stories live on and on. A goal scored, a penalty kick stopped. Naturally, they’re embellished in the retelling over time. Other World Cup stories need no embellishing. They just unfold, twisting and turning strangely. This is one of those stories.

Everyone in Italy and every Italian around the world knows the name: Byron Moreno.

Globe and Mail Update Jun. 10 2014, 4:42 PM EDT

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His full name is Byron Aldemar Moreno Ruales, born Nov. 23, 1969, in Quito, Ecuador, and he used to be an Ecuadorian soccer referee. Now he’s an ex-con, disgraced and forever notorious.

On Tuesday, June 8, 2002, in the city of Daejeon, in South Korea, Moreno became world-famous. He was chosen to officiate a knockout, second-round game between South Korea and Italy. Millions around the world, and 42,000 people in the stadium, saw him make a hash of it.

Italy had an excellent team at the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, Francesco Totti and Pippo Inzaghi were goal scorers in the best days of their careers. The centre-backs Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta were the best in the world in their positions. Captain Paolo Maldini was a legend, calm and imposing. In goal was the great Gigi Buffon. Juventus had paid a world-record fee of $46.8-million (U.S.) to get him on their team.

South Korea was then a lively team, speedy, driven by pride and the deafening roar of their home supporters. Manager Guus Hiddink of the Netherlands had been hired to help South Korea make a respectable showing. He achieved that. To the surprise of the world, the South Korean team stormed through the first round, beating Poland 2-0, achieving a 1-1 draw with the USA and then a stunning 1-0 victory over Portugal. Against Italy they were even cocky, perhaps knowing that with Italy’s Nesta injured and Cannavaro suspended, they’d have goal chances.

In the middle was referee Moreno, a nobody from Ecuador. Who knows what spooked him – the reputations of the Italians or the unearthly noise in the stadium as 40,000 people banged drums and chanted “Dae han min guk!” (really just “Ko-re-a!) incessantly. The atmosphere was beyond electric.

It became even more fevered when the Koreans won a penalty but failed to score. Then Vieri scored for Italy and, glaring at the crowd, put a finger to his lips, telling them to shush. Enraged, they got even louder, ear-piercing.

In the fast-paced game, South Korea equalized late and it went to extra-time. A golden goal would win it for whichever side scored. Moreno seemed to wilt, struggling to stay with the play, sometimes well behind it. He looked rattled. The Korean supporters never sagged. Slight young men seemed to possess super power as they clapped and banged drums harder, louder; women wept with exhaustion even as they shouted louder and louder for South Korea to keep going, to score.

Damiano Tommasi scored for Italy. Game over. But Moreno ruled it offside, which it wasn’t. He was huffing and puffing, and wrong. He looked scared. Then he gave a second yellow card to Francesco Totti, for alleged diving. Which was wrong. Totti had been tackled to the ground, Moreno hadn’t seen it clearly. Totti was ejected from the field. Then with three minutes left, the Koreans scored, a peach of a goal by their glamour player, Ahn Jung-hwan. It was all over for Italy.

But only starting for Moreno. First, Italy manager Giovanni Trapattoni claimed a conspiracy to keep a co-host country in the tournament. This theme was taken up by the Italian media, with Bruno Pizzul, a famous pundit, saying, “Frankly, that was complete robbery.” As the conspiracy theory fizzled, the focus was more on Moreno’s incompetence. “The referee was a disgrace, absolutely scandalous,” said Franco Frattini, Italy's minister for public offences. La Gazzetta dello Sport called him, “The worst referee, ever.”

FIFA assessed the officiating because of the fuss and president Sepp Blatter dodged the main issue by claming that the “linesmen” (now called the assistant referees who run the lines of the field) had been deficient in helping the ref.

Moreno would have disappeared back into obscurity in Ecuador but the Italian media obsessed over him. They followed his career, post-World Cup in Ecuador. It wasn’t a pretty story. Whether emboldened by fame or chronically hapless, he got into even more trouble. In the season after the World Cup, the soccer association in Ecuador suspended him. After a string of poorly handled games, he lost the plot in one match.

At the end of a game between Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito and Barcelona Sporting Club, he called for six minutes of added time, which seemed excessive. The added time then stretched to nearly 13 minutes during which the Quito team scored two goals. That got him suspended. He ran for office on the city council of Quito, and lost. (There was suspicion that he allowed those 13 minutes of added time to help his election chances in Quito.) Returning to refereeing after his suspension, he was suspended again for poor officiating – he issued three red cards, all harsh decisions, in one game. He then accepted invitations to visit Italy and appeared on satiric TV shows that mocked him. But he got paid well for his appearances.

Eventually he turned to TV punditry and became a familiar TV figure in Ecuador, analyzing games. He separated from his wife and took up with a younger girlfriend. He lived a life of modest fame in his home country.

He would have been forgotten forever, except in the minds of Italians. And then, in September of 2010, he flew into JFK airport in New York from Quito. According to a customs engagement report, later filed in court, Moreno looked “visibly nervous” as he went through customs. He was searched and a customs officer noted “hard objects in his stomach, back and legs.” When strip-searched, he was found to be carrying ten bags of heroin, for a total of six kilograms. He was arrested.

In January, 2011, he pleaded guilty in a New York courthouse and faced a possible 10-year sentence. His lawyer explained that Moreno had accumulated debts, his girlfriend had miscarried and he knew he had been foolish to undertake the drug smuggling with the promise of payment to wipe out his debts. He’d been distraught. “He was in debt, personal debt. He was just in over his head and made a very foolish choice, and now he’s going to pay for it,” his lawyer told the judge. Eventually Moreno was sentenced to 2 1/2 years.

Held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, he was apparently a model prisoner, devoted to ironing clothes for other prisoners to earn money and organizing soccer games and a jailhouse league for his fellow inmates. He was given a certificate of good behaviour by the warden, who supported an early release. He was released after serving 26 months.

His lawyer, pleading for early release, said the jail time had been “tremendously humbling and painful for him [Moreno] and his family.” In a statement to Federal Justice Edward Korman, Moreno himself said, “From the bottom of my heart, I am very sorry. I hope that God and you will forgive me.”

Italy has never forgiven him. There, they’ve mocked him throughout his troubles. When news broke of Moreno’s arrest for attempting to smuggle heroin, Gigi Buffon, Italy’s keeper on that fateful day in 2002, was asked to comment. He reply was, “Sei chili di droga? Li aveva gia nel 2002, ma non nelle mutande, in corpo.” Which translates as: “Six kilograms of drugs? He had them already in 2002 but not in his underwear. In his system.”

Who knows what spooked Moreno on that day in Daejeon? Who knows if this strange World Cup story has yet more strange twists and turns?

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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