Craig Williams2 Comments

THE DAY I MET THE DEVIL

Craig Williams2 Comments
THE DAY I MET THE DEVIL

The secluded, picturesque village of La Nueva is nestled deep within the lush, green valleys of the Northern Spanish region of Asturias. Dominated by the towering Pozo San Luis mine at its heart, its postcard-pretty image speaks of natural beauty juxtaposed with a history of hard labour that brought prosperity to the region via its own black gold, coal. 

And it was here, in 2011, that I met the devil.

I'd heard the stories about him, saw his image in print and was well aware of the full extent of his own unique kiss of death - his ability to wreak havoc on those whom he crossed paths with in his line of duty.

Then, during a traditional Saturday artisan market, thronging with people and stall holders selling their wares, appeared this towering inferno in skin and bone form, elegant in his jeans, polo shirt and dark complexion, one unbefitting of the ruler of the underworld.

His name? Manuel Enrique Mejuto González. 

A man, perhaps not one easily remembered even by those of a footballing persuasion in my home nation of Scotland, but one who, seen photographed whistle-in-hand, conjures up a level of boiling rage that could ignite the fire of a thousand suns. A rage that is perhaps even as potent as the despair that was felt by the Tartan Army, after Peru humiliated Ally MacLeod's men in Argentina in 1978.

As expected of Satan, he knew who I was, like he had felt my presence. As the only Scot in a foreign region, one where those from other regions, never mind other European nations, rarely ventured, I was easy to spot.

"You must be the new teacher in the language school," his words of introduction. "I studied there a few years back, when I started refereeing in the Champions League."

All this I knew already, my homework on 'Mejuto' having been completed when I learned of the misfortune of my geographical proximity to the man; one of three famous footballing sons born and brought up in the area, alongside a certain David Villa and ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper Andrés Junquera.

Etiquette suggested that I asked him about his time as a student at the academy I called my workplace, and how it helped him in his lengthy career as a top UEFA referee, but as if fulfilling a debt to my fellow fan, I avoided the niceties and cut straight to the point.

"Hampden Park, Glasgow, 2007. Scotland against Italy. Remember the game?" I asked.

"Of course, I've never heard an atmosphere like it," he replied.

"Why did you give Italy a free-kick when it was for Scotland at the end?"

"It was my linesman who signalled the direction of the foul."

His linesman. Blame the linesman. One way to dodge a bullet, perhaps.

The 90th minute of the most important game since 1998, the last time Scotland played at a major tournament. Scotland against Italy. A win for Scotland would see them qualify for Euro 2008. A loss? Goodnight Vienna. After the worst of starts - Italy had taken the lead through a Luca Toni goal in the second minute - Scotland had fought their way back into the tie thanks to a Barry Ferguson strike, and had the Azzurri with their backs to the wall.

As the clock wore down, something quite incredible happened. Incredible, in that no one could believe it, all 51,000 packed into Hampden Park and the thousands watching in pubs and houses up and down the country. 

With Italy pressing Scotland high up the park, defender Alan Hutton was pole-axed by Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini as he attempted to make a clearance near his own box. The Italian defender, chasing down the ball in a position so high up the field for it would have given him a nosebleed, sent Hutton sliding across the sodden Hampden turf. 

And yet Italy were awarded a free-kick, the astonishment on Hutton's face telling its own story. Perhaps in shock at the decision, the Scotland players were posted missing as Christian Panucci rose to meet Andrea Pirlo's set-piece delivery, heading past a despairing Craig Gordon in goal.

Disaster for Scotland. The cold bit a little more that night under the stadium lights as the final whistle saw a pre-match plethora of full voices turn hoarse in the wake of such shattered, broken dreams.

For the majority of players, and fans alike, there was only one person to blame for the defeat. The man in the middle, Mejuto Gonzalez. A man who in 2013 was voted by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) as the 11th best referee in the history of the game.

After the game, Scottish manager Alex McLeish didn't mince his words. "The set-piece that led to their second goal was an unbelievable decision," McLeish told the BBC. "Alan Hutton was in control of the ball and their guy battered him. How can that be a free-kick to Italy?"

Forward James McFadden, echoed his manager’s sentiment as the Scotland players struggled to apprehend the defeat and the manner in which they conceded the second goal. 

"After all the hard work, we've been absolutely robbed by the referee," he said. "I think he was shocking. Coming from the Ukraine game, people didn't want us to qualify and they've got what they wanted." 

The less than subtle back page of the following day's Daily Record newspaper spoke of the pain felt by Scotland fans from Gretna to Lerwick, reading 'DON'T LET HIM REF ANOTHER BIG GAME AGAIN; THE ITALIAN ROB.'

More recently, in the BBC documentary 'Scotland's Game', McLeish went as far as suggesting that superior forces were at work during the game, with the referee's call given to ensure that the so called bigger nations - Italy included - made it to Euro 2008 to dine at the big table.

McLeish revealed in the documentary that he was contacted the week prior to the game by a female Italian journalist, who posed the question, "Do you really think UEFA will allow France and Italy not to qualify?" The journalist went on to tell McLeish, "If there's a 50/50, the referee will favour the Italians."

Born on the 16th April 1965, Mejuto began his career in La Liga way back in 1995. He is a celebrated figure in his homeland and holds the record for most international matches refereed by a Spaniard. Mejuto was the man in the middle for Deportivo's famous Centenariazo cup final defeat of Real Madrid in 2002, where he was lauded post-match for handling the weight of the occasion admirably. 

How can someone so hated be loved in equal measure?

The answer is spelt out by 4 Spanish words, words known and repeated on regular occasion by every football fan in Spain. The words are attributed to Mejuto but were never actually said by the referee, in what is undoubtedly a footballing anecdote without equal, and one that gained him the notoriety he enjoys today within the country.

"Rafa, no me jodas."

Which roughly translates as "Rafa, don't fuck with me."

Every football fan in Spain can recite the words spoken by Mejuto to his then linesman Rafa Guerrero  - picked up by a television mic - during a match between Zaragoza and Barcelona in the powder-keg atmosphere inside the former's Rosaleda stadium. 

Interestingly, what he actually said was something quite different, "Venga Rafa, me cago en mi madre, penalti de quien" - "Come on Rafa, I shit on my mother, penalty by whom?" - an utterance much simplified by Spanish football fans. 

As well as his forthright communication with his officials, Mejuto was also praised in Spain as a referee that wasn't at all tarjetero (card happy). Unfortunately, he is also a man remembered as being the protagonist in an incident at Valencia's Mestalla stadium, regarded to this day as 'the most obvious penalty in the history of the world,' during a league match against Real Madrid in March 2006. 

As Valencia's David Villa was barged off the ball by Madrid defender Mejía, his protests for a free kick were waved away by Mejuto. The ball continued in the direction of Sergio Ramos, who - thinking Mejuto had given the foul - duly picked up the ball inside his own box. Much to the shock of Valencia's supporters, he gave a free kick in Madrid's favour at the point of the original Mejía infringement to avoid controversy. 

In the Spanish press's mind, Mejuto invented an inexistent foul that he himself hadn't signaled for just two or three seconds previously. But in his slight favour, FIFA rules denote that; if Ramos's motivation was by way of a whistle heard from the stands, then the decision not to blow for a penalty was the correct one. Instead, it called for a drop ball to be given, as opposed to a free kick in favour of Real Madrid.

The decision stoked the fires of controversy among Barcelona fans, who wondered whether, below his referee jersey, he wore a crisp, white Madrid top. As evidence, supporters pointed to the fact that in his decade at the helm of La Liga matches, he refereed only two Real Madrid losses from the 28 games he took charge of, whereas with Barcelona the record stood at eight losses from 26 games.

Barca's murmurings of discontent about Mejuto peaked prior to his last - and only second ever - occasion as referee for the biggest game in Spanish football, El Clásico. In the end, it was a game in which Barcelona ran away 2-0 winners at the Santiago Bernabeu, thanks to goals from Pedro and Messi. Ten years of officiating in La Liga and only once in 2007, and once a month before he retired in 2010, was Mejuto the man in the middle of the country's biggest game.

Critics have used his frequent absence from Spain's biggest match as a method of labelling him inferior. However, Mejuto puts his lack of opportunities to referee the Clásico down to the fact that the decision for each match is made by random computer draw among referees from regions other than Madrid and Barcelona, rather than a case of not being the best man for the job.

Celtic fans also have a major gripe against Mejuto, as twice during Champions League games he has given two contentious decisions against the side. The first, forgotten, was in a famous win for Celtic against Manchester United at Parkhead, when Mejuto, in the 90th minute, gave the away side a penalty due to a Sean Maloney handball as he blocked Cristiano Ronaldo's free kick. However, the decision was quickly forgotten after Celtic's Artur Boruc saved the resultant penalty.

Fast forward to 2009, and a Champions League play-off, when Arsenal faced Celtic at the Emirates Stadium. Although Arsenal ran out deserved 3-1 winners, Mejuto awarded a controversial penalty after Brazilian-born Croatian striker Eduardo dived in the box.

Foreign ire towards the ref doesn't stop at the Scottish borders. His performance during a match at Euro 2008 was labelled 'scandalous', and he himself was called 'blind' and 'useless' by the Austrian press after his display at Euro 2008 in a game against Germany, one in which he sent off both team's managers. 

The Romanian sports pages labelled him 'Mr Bad Luck' after he was given the nod to referee the national side against France at the same tournament. They questioned his performances in previous matches involving both Romania and Dinamo Bucharest, and referred to him as a referee who 'always favours the big teams,' illustrating their arguments with reference to a contentious penalty decision he made in favour of Italy against Australia at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Ex Watford boss Quique Sánchez Flores also crossed paths with the ref during a match between Valencia and Athletic Bilbao in 2007, with his Valencian side going down 1-0 away by virtue of what he described as a 'shameful' performance from Mejuto.

 

But perhaps it's Mejuto that has had the last laugh. He spent 15 years spent as a referee - a longer career than most football players - with 262 games as the man in the middle of the most technically beautiful league in the world. He also officiated over 100 international matches and another 40 games in the Champions League - including maybe its most memorable ever.

 

Mejuto had the best seat in the house when officiating what was perhaps the most thrilling, emotional, roller-coaster like final in the history of football, the Liverpool - Milan Champions League final in 2005. He is the only man to have covered every blade of grass in the game without kicking a ball. And for that, well, he wins.

A win that Scotland never got, in no small thanks to him and his whistle. Indeed, only in the beautiful game of football could one man and his whistle cause so much pain and suffering to so many.

And after we parted ways with a firm, steady handshake and 'nice to meet you,' I felt that a mutual sense of relief had washed over both Mejuto and I, with us both having made valiant attempts to exorcise the ghosts of that wet, winter evening under the Hampden floodlights, the scene of so much suffering for us Scotland fans.  

A night which, through sheer coincidence, became the topic of conversation between two footballing fans from different walks of life many years later. In a small, secluded mining village in the middle of nowhere.

By Craig Williams. 

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