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The Rules of the Game
Pierluigi Collina (MacMillan 2003, £12.99)
"In my opinion, Collina is the best referee in the game" - David Beckham.

High praise indeed from Goldenballs for the famously bald whistle blower from Bologna. Collina is certainly the most famous referee in the world, the only one to have his own sponsorship deal, and has refereed the World Cup Final, Olympic Final and Champions League Final. Does this make him the best referee in the world? To be honest, I don't know, but he does have a wealth of experience at the highest level and appears to have the respect of the world's top players. So surely his opinions on the game from this unique and largely neglected perspective would be worth hearing? Mix this with some amusing anecdotes, garnered through years in Italian, European and World football, dealing with all sorts of characters and situations both on and off the pitch, and surely it will be a compelling read? Well, I'm afraid that like so much in life it doesn't really work like that, maybe this book lost something in the translation, but Pierluigi really isn't telling us too much we didn't already know.

One thing Collina is definitely trying to change is our perception of the referee. I don't suppose there is too much new in his plea that we recognise that the man in the middle is genuinely doing his best and is prone to mistakes like anybody else. That we take into account that refs do what they do for altruistic motives, for a love of the game that can be considered equal (in its own twisted way) to that of most ardent fan. He also goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the fitness, diet, attention to detail, training and assessing of the modern day ref has made him more efficient than ever. Frequent seminars to provide greater consistency, allied to better relations with the players themselves, is providing the highest quality of officiating, and it's improving all the time. Here he has some valid points - standards do seem to be improving, and while that doesn't always seem obvious to those of who us who watch our football in Division One, we would probably do well to remember that of the twenty-three people on the pitch, it's rarely the referee who makes the most mistakes. To be a ref is a thankless task without which the game couldn't go ahead, and some respect and empathy wouldn't go amiss sometimes. As I say, hardly ground breaking, but a good reminder coming from such an experienced and respected man. Nevertheless anybody with more than a passing interest in football knows that refs have got fitter and are better prepared than ever, the fine detail of how this is happening is something I, for one, was happy to take for granted without a blow by blow account.

However, Collina wants to change more about our perceptions than just our respect for and treatment of refs. He also appears to wish to change the status of the referee within the actual game itself. The old cliche about the 'best referee not getting noticed' is not for Pierluigi. On the contrary, the referee must be bold, brave, and rather than facilitating the game is a major participant in it, as important as any of the players. What Collina really desires is to 'be a leading character' in the drama that is a football match or major tournament (he's very keen on the film metaphor for life and football). Personally, I find this a little worrying, though perhaps not a great surprise. Although it's undoubtedly true that a referee does need a certain amount of courage to make important borderline decisions, does he really need to be noticed in every game? Does Collina think that we're going to start paying our money to watch the man in black? It is a complete failure to realise that he can't shape the game, only the players can do that. The desire to do more than react to a game is common to all of us, but we're stuck with it. A referee who desperately wants to be part of the action is in danger of making a huge mistake in his eagerness to be noticed. Anybody who has seen the grinning Graham Poll make mistake after mistake in the Premiership is surely aware of this. To be honest, I think that Collina's desire to be noticed has been fuelled by the fact that he is instantly noticeable and recognisable. He believes that its natural for him to be the first superstar referee, and that he's earned his Adidas contract and fashion show appearances this by talent, rather than by a quirk of his looks.

Collina's arrogance also shows in his phoney attempts at modesty, and his assertion that for him refereeing the World Cup Final is the same as a common or garden Serie B match. This statement is somewhat betrayed by his comment later in the same passage that 'all matches are equal, but some are more equal than others'. A remark written, it would seem, with a complete lack of irony.

Another area where 'The Rules of the Game' is anti-climactic is in its lack of entertaining stories or insights into the big games or superstar players that Collina has handled. I'm afraid that he tells us very little of what it's like to be in the pressure cooker that was England versus Argentina during the last World Cup. We already knew that the last three minutes of the 1999 Champions League Final was 'exciting', but what was it like to give those goals? I'd like to know more about officiating a World Cup Final than how the ref attempted to collect the match ball as a souvenir! Similarly, Collina tells us that David Beckham is his favourite player (a worrying mutual admiration society?), but doesn't tell us why. Collina discusses legends like Baggio, Raul and Baresi, but very briefly, glossing over their talent, and falling to enlighten us at all. In the case of Baresi, he just simply recounts giving him a red card after a mere three minutes of a big Milan versus Roma game and justifies his decision, we learn nothing about one of the greatest defenders ever to have graced the game. Instead the bulk of 'The Rules of the Game' is taken up with excessive minutiae of a referee's existence, it's long winded, over detailed, repetitive and just plain boring in places!

All in all, 'The Rules of the Game' is an opportunity missed. It fails to give any new perspective on the game, it doesn't enlighten or entertain either. It does make some relevant points about the role of the referee, but these points are reiterated again and again to saturation point. Pierluigi is obviously a man who doesn't get bored of his own voice or favourite themes, but I have to admit that I tired of them quickly. The book was originally written in Italian and maybe part of its humour and the flow of its narrative was lost in the translation to English. But I sincerely doubt it.

Tim Evershed