Hey kids, it's the next big name to emerge from South America (not quite what you think)...
Who on earth would want to be a referee? It is something that is often asked in England after the latest official has been lambasted by manager, players and fans alike for obstructing their team’s path to victory. Yet while our referees may at times have an unenviable task, having witnessed the job facing their Argentinean counterparts, I must say that it is a question that has truly baffled me.
The poor guys are quite simply on a hiding to nothing. Without wanting to resort to racial stereotypes, South American footballers are enormous cheats. During my first four months here covering lower-league and youth-team football the vast majority of games have followed more or less the same script. Matches are spent getting under the skin of your opponent, with a succession of cheap shots, ridiculous dives and the waving of imaginary cards, until tensions inevitably boil over and the football becomes a sideshow. To say it borders on the pantomime would be an understatement, and the referee of course is everybody’s favourite villain.
Pitches are surrounded by barbed wire and cages to protect the players and officials from the paying public, while riot police are stationed on the sidelines to protect these same players and officials from one another. During my time here I have dodged the spit of twenty men rattling on a cage like zoo animals, furious at a referee who had the temerity to send off a player for a tackle that could have broken both of the recipient’s legs. I have watched a linesman get pinned against a fence by an entire youth team, like playground bullies after his lunch money, demanding to know why a goal had not been disallowed for offside (the simple answer being that it wasn’t). I have even seen a referee flee the pitch followed by a gang of players kicking at his heels before scrambling to safety over a six-foot wall, a scene reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch were it not so shocking to witness.
All in all it would be fair to say that the men in black here are fighting an impossible battle, charged with applying the rules to a game in which everybody is doing their utmost to break them, and then blamed for lacking control once everybody around them loses their heads.
Yet I have been lucky enough to meet the one man who is providing a breath of fresh air in this otherwise toxic atmosphere. His name is Nestor Pitana, and he is widely regarded as the best referee in Argentina. Hailing from Misiones, perhaps Argentina’s least famous province in terms of football heritage, his tale is a truly remarkable one. An imposing figure at six foot five, he spent time working as both a lifeguard and nightclub bouncer before being introduced to refereeing having qualified as a P.E. teacher. Now thirty-six, he has risen from taking charge of schoolyard kickabouts in his hometown to refereeing international matches all around the world in just over five years.
As far as I can tell refereeing over here has seemed more like the worst form of community service imaginable rather than a job with any sort of satisfaction, yet Pitana can barely stop smiling as he effuses about the joys of his work.
“I am incredibly passionate about football having played the game myself, not to a professional level but still with local clubs. Even after crossing over to the ‘other side’ I still feel this passion, the desire to see a good game of football played in the right way, and I believe I do so more and more each day.”
It must be said that very little of the football that I have seen since starting this job has been played in ‘the right way’, yet Pitana is philosophical when discussing the uglier side of the South American game, arguing that when football is so keenly felt in a country it is bound to take on both the good and the bad aspects of the society that ensures its popularity.
“I believe that football is simply a reflection of culture. In Argentina it is a way of life, not necessarily to cheat but to get what you need by any means possible. Therefore, it is in the very make-up of a player to try and gain an advantage by deceiving the referee or an opponent. Everything is pushed to the maximum, the fans demand that their team wins, wins, wins, and this pressure is exerted through the coaches and on to the players.”
This lack of regard for rules and fair play often means that referees can become sacrificial scapegoats, singled out by anyone looking to deflect attention from their own disappointments and inadequacies. Yet rather than allow his spirits to be dampened by the seemingly endless abuse and criticism, Pitana admits that it is actually something that he thrives upon.
“Football is a contact sport and so there will always be a certain subjectivity surrounding it. Players, staff, and fans - everyone believes that they can also judge a game, often in a different way to you. Football is not just ninety minutes, it is the build up to those ninety minutes and the breakdown of them afterwards. If we took this subjectivity out of the game then I don’t think that we would talk about football as much as we do now, and that would be very sad.”
However, Pitana knows better than anyone that not all indiscretions can be simply put down to uncontained passion, having been on the receiving end of one of the most high-profile cases of crowd disturbance in recent years. In June this year he took charge of the first leg of the promotion-relegation play-off between Belgrano de Córdoba and River Plate, a tie that River would go on to lose 3-1 on aggregate and slip into the second tier for the first time in their illustrious history.
Having seen Belgrano take a 2-0 lead shortly after half-time, around a dozen River fans in the away end cut through the wire mesh and invaded the pitch in order to give the players a piece of their mind. It is a moment that Pitana remembers vividly:
“My linesman started running towards me and when I turned around I saw that some people had got on the pitch and were assaulting the River players. I remember running over and separating the players from the fans, or so-called fans, by standing in between them. The worst bit was the waiting for them to fix the fence so that we could restart, with tensions running so high. Afterwards I thought “what if one of them had brought on a knife?”, and that is scary, but you cannot think like that otherwise we would never do anything”.
Pitana was praised for his brave handling of the situation, but he is quick to acknowledge that his job is made much easier by the support afforded to him as a top-level referee, and that the real work is still to be done much lower down the ladder.
“Sometimes people ask me what the most difficult games that I ever refereed were, and I always reply the very first ones that I did. With less experience you have fewer tools at your disposal, so it is much more difficult to take control of a game at local level. Pierluigi Collina recently spoke about the need to protect these referees since they are the future, and he is absolutely right.”
Progress is certainly being made, albeit slowly. New legislation means that any clubs that do not take sufficient safety measures in the form of security cameras and police presence are forced to pay hefty fines, and this is helping to make incidents of aggression less common. However, Pitana is hopeful that in order to ensure a lasting change in attitude the focus of future initiatives can become more about cooperation rather than simply coercion.
“There is a lot to work on but it can’t just come from the authorities, it also needs to come from players, coaches, even journalists; the entire football community. It is not just about improving the situation of referees but the world of football in general. There needs to be a respect for the work of one another, an understanding of the demands placed upon us and the compromises that we all must make. Of course it is difficult to sit us all around the same table and for us all to be in agreement but it will happen, one day it will happen. We should not lose hope because the desire to be better is always there.”
Talking to the man, it is obvious that this drive to constantly improve and progress has been central to his rapid rise as a referee.
“Every day you learn something new and it is the same in refereeing, you have to keep adjusting and answering different questions because as soon as you believe that you know it all that is when you fall flat on your face. The most important thing in any profession is to set aims and continue working with lots of dedication towards those. I think you can achieve anything with hard work, honesty, commitment, and to care, to love what you are doing.”
Pitana himself is in no doubt as to what the next objective is on his to-do list. When I mention how he seems to be the name on everybody’s lips to be Argentina’s representative at the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014 he can barely contain his grin, before showing me the goosebumps that have appeared on his arm at the mere mention of the idea.
“I know it is difficult because it is the highest honour in the game. I have to keep working day to day, and learn a whole range of things, like English for example, so that when that little spot does open up I will be ready to fight for it. It is not that I cannot sleep without thinking about it, but yes, I certainly do sleep dreaming of it. I would love to do it.”
Having found my faith in the beautiful game severely rocked during my time here it is truly refreshing to see such enthusiasm and optimism from a man in his unpopular position, and given the remarkable success that Pitana has enjoyed in such a short space of time it would be hard to bet against him achieving whatever he wants.