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The Globe and Mail

Boss of referees admits Ukraine goal should have counted. But, so what…

England's Ashley Cole (L) watches as England's John Terry (R) clears the ball from the goal mouth during their Group D Euro 2012 soccer match at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, June 19, 2012.


Where soccer is called football they refer to the manager as "the gaffer." The boss, bloke in charge kinda thing.

In the referee racket, Pierluigi Collina is the gaffer.

Retired but renowned as the probably the best socc er referee in the world ever, Collina's fame beggars the adjective "iconic." His shaved head, popping eyes and dismissive shrug define soccer refereeing, His image has been used in commercials and video games because Collina's image signals "referee" and, more important, the referee who matters.

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Retired for a few years now, Collina is more than a pop image in soccer. He's a genuine force in soccer. He is UEFA's chief refereeing officer and he was presented to journalists here on Wednesday to assess the refereeing situation at the close of the first round of Euro 2012.

His main, newsworthy message was this – Ukraine's goal against England, the ball just crossing the line before John Terry kicked it back, and disallowed, should have been given as goal.

He wasn't happy to deliver the news. But he was firm. He pointed to the facts, as he and UEFA saw them. That is, and for instance, "There were 302 decisions on the offside rule in the first round. Of that, 289 were correct and 13 were wrong." Collina then looked at us sternly and said, "That is a 95.7 per cent accuracy rate."

On the matter of the disallowed goal by Ukraine, Collina referred to "a human mistake by a human being." Pressed on the fact that the goal had been disallowed by an extra goal-line official specifically designated to handle goal-line and penalty-box decisions, he was unmovable on the positive results of UEFA's use of the extra official. He pointed out that Champions League games have used the system for two years. He said that John Terry's red card in Chelsea's game against Barcelona was the result of an alert extra official and was correct.

Again, he pointed to the statistics about sound referee decisions. "What player reaches 95 per cent accuracy?" he asked rhetorically. And it is a fair point in the context of international soccer. There is no video or laser technology in soccer. It's human perspective and human error. As Collina sees it, and the soccer world is required to, for now, that 95.7 per cent accuracy is darn impressive.

The thing about Collina is that you tend to believe that he is correct. In person, he is a slight figure, with a soft voice. Articulate in four languages, he has a politician's aura of plausibility. A shrug of the shoulders, a glancing glare, an ironic smile. Each tic is persuasive. Instantly, in his presence, a person can see why players obeyed him. "We discussed this already," he said in response to another question about the use of the extra official. One can he hear him saying that to the player on the field. The shrug, the smile. The "this-conversation-is-over" tone.

He was asked about decisions in games between Italy and Croatia, Greece against Russia. He sighed. "If we talk about all the decisions in all 24 games, then we are here until Christmas," he said. And everybody pretty much shut up.

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Flanked by UEFA officials, a buddy-in-a-suit on either side of this small, in-charge man, the press conference became slightly surreal. On the disallowed Ukraine goal, Collina said, "The ball crossed the line. That was unfortunate."

The UEFA officials declared that goal-line technology had not been invented yet that was better than human observation. This was absurd, but allowed. Nobody mentioned that FIFA head Sepp Blatter had already declared, contra-UEFA, that goal-line technology must happen immediately.

Collina carried on talking. Somebody suggested that his faith in human observation and the referee system, made him a "demagogue." His eyes widened, a faint smile appeared on his face. He needed no translation. He gave the ultimate retort. The you-try-it reply:

"If you would like to experience something very particular, well..(he paused here) then take a flag in your hand and go out in the field. It could be a nice experience, something very different," he said. He meant the job of the assistant referee on the sideline. Not even the man in the middle of it all.

He's persuasive alright. An hour after the press conference here, and his confident display of statistics, Collina could seeing chatting animatedly with another UEFA official. Collina talked. The UEFA suit nodded.

He's the boss of referees still. In charge. He's right about much, but admits to referees being wrong. That's the trouble – he's right, but there is only one of him.

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