Horacio Elizondo might be, excluding politicians, one of the most insulted people in South America. As one of the continent’s pre-eminent referees, his two-decade long career took in three Copa Libertadores finals, countless Argentinian top-flight games and two Copas América as well as a World Cup. That last tournament was to put him in a unique position to comment on probably the most widely seen, and arguably one of the most controversial, red cards of all time; it was Elizondo who sent off Zinédine Zidane for his headbutt on Marco Materazzi during the 2006 final.

Since retiring — like Zidane, in 2006 — he has become a refereeing analyst for Argentinian media, and has worked with various government agencies on aid, education and sport programs. I met him one Monday afternoon, just after he’d finished a television spot for TyCSports, Argentina’s main domestic cable sports channel, and was half expecting him to be in a rush to get away as we sat down in the lobby to talk. Not a bit of it.

Let’s start at the beginning. What made you want to become a referee — because I’d guess it wasn’t a childhood dream?

No, no... kids dream about other things! When I was a boy I dreamed about being a football player. I played in the Quilmes youth system, but when I was 13 or 14 years old, I realised there were lots of players like me, that I was going to be one more among the multitude and that the dream of getting into the first team was going to be almost impossible. So, I started dedicating myself to other sports — I played rugby, handball... until I got into athletics and decided I wanted to be a decathlete. I had really good personal bests in most of the disciplines, but there was one that I just couldn’t do, which was the pole vault. I was afraid of heights! So from then on I settled into my strongest discipline, which was the javelin. I competed in that here in Argentina until the age of 22.

When I was 19 [in 1984], I started university, studying to become a Physical Education teacher and during my studies I had to referee a handball game, and... well, the teacher told me to referee and afterwards asked whether I’d ever thought of becoming a football referee — until that point, at 19, it had never crossed my mind — and I replied that no, I hadn’t. Oh, he kept on at me for a long time! Telling me to take the [refereeing] course run by the country’s handball association and I kept telling him no. Then one day, totally coincidentally, I was walking past the headquarters of the AFA [Asociación de Fútbol Argentino] and I saw a sign on the door saying “Enrolment open for refereeing course”. Complete coincidence, you know? Because I didn’t even know the AFA headquarters was there! I didn’t know, and I walked past the door and saw that sign... and kept walking! Then at the corner of the block, I couldn’t cross the road because of the traffic lights. So, what my teacher had been telling me — going on at me about — for all those months, plus that little sign... I said to myself, right then. Let’s do it. It’s only 50m away, let’s go and see what it’s all about. A little aside here which I like; that incident means traffic lights are something very important in my life, just as they were for the English referee [Ken Aston] who was inspired by traffic lights to invent red and yellow cards.

Anyway, I enrolled and after a few days I was already waking up and going to bed every day thinking about refereeing and all day in between as well. I had no doubt that this was my new vocation, and pretty soon I asked myself, “What am I going to do with this?”

In a lot of countries, even top level referees aren’t full time; many have a job during the rest of the week. What does a referee need to do during the days between matches, from a professional point of view?

There comes a point in the career of any referee when he reaches a peak at which point he doesn’t have much time for another job, unless he’s lucky enough to have one which means he’s effectively self-employed — I don’t know, perhaps if he owns a café or restaurant, for instance, he might be able to manage it somehow. But if your work depends on an employer, be it public or private, it becomes very complicated because you’re not going to be able to meet every requirement. During the week, at least in my case (and there are those who don’t do this — at least in Argentina), I trained every day of the week, I went to the gym, did my training at Ezeiza [the suburb in southern Buenos Aires where the AFA and some clubs have training bases], I learned to speak English [a requirement for referees who want Fifa approval to officiate international matches], went swimming... in my head, it was 24 hours a day of refereeing. My preparation was always aimed at doing things the very best I could on the field of play, so it took up all my time.

When you started out as a referee, surely you couldn’t have dreamed that one day, you’d be able to say you’ve refereed three Copa Libertadores finals, as well as the opening match of a World Cup and the final of that same World Cup [Elizondo is the only referee to be able to say the latter of a World Cup with knockout stages, although Englishman George Reader officiated both the opening match and the fortuitously decisive group match of the 1950 World Cup]. Was there any ambition as a referee that you didn’t manage to realise?

There’s no short answer to that one. Looking back, when I realised that refereeing was becoming a big part of my life, I started to ask myself, “what am I going to do with all this?” I was 20 years old. The answer came very quickly: referee at a World Cup. That is to say, that was my objective, the number one aim. I knew from that moment that to get to that point a lot of things were going to come up and that I’d need to reach a lot of smaller goals along the way to arrive at that final point.

I actually had a big chance to go to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, but in the end I didn’t quite make it. At that point I started to think differently, asking myself, “I want to go to a World Cup, but until now I’ve never thought — what’s a World Cup going to be like? What do I want to do [when I’m there]?” It’s a point that maybe no one really knows, but that was when I realised that I wanted to referee the final of a World Cup. So from 2002 to 2006, everything was focused on imagining myself, visualising myself, preparing as if I was going to referee the final. That was the biggest thing — quite apart from whether it actually happened or not, because there are a lot of circumstances you have to rely on, which Horacio Elizondo couldn’t take into account with his preparation. [For the organisers] there are a lot of political factors, a lot of strategic factors, performance-related factors... and comparisons with other referees at the same World Cup, of course. So, a lot of things to consider! Some officials were competing with me, some weren’t. But the preparation — I want to make this clear — my preparation was always with the idea that I was going to be refereeing that match.

Ironically, given what you’ve just said, I read an old interview of yours yesterday in which you said that your favourite memory from that World Cup was refereeing the opening match, not the final!

Well, that was just... [blows out his cheeks] that match... it was so... it made me so happy! From an emotional point of view it was that match, yes. In the world of refereeing, remember, the refs who went to that World Cup had started to work towards it three years previously, in 2003. So of course, who’s going to oversee the opening match? There are always two or three refereeing teams competing and before it started, on an entirely theoretical level, they said okay — we were the best. Just a little better [than the others]. So the satisfaction was enormous when we got that news, and on the day that I was going to referee the opening match... wow! It was as if I had a documentary entitled My 22-Year Career playing in my head, you know? So emotionally, that was the match which left me with the strongest memories.

Modern football seems to depend more and more on the physical conditioning of players, which results in an ever faster game, at least in some countries. Does that mean referees have to meet requirements which didn’t exist — or at least didn’t have the same importance —when you started to referee? In terms of physique, or the ability to read a game that’s getting quicker all the time...

When I started refereeing compared with the football we see today... they’re totally different games. Today it’s a much faster and more dynamic game. For that reason, referees today need to work daily not only on their physical abilities, but also the techniques, tactics and strategies of refereeing. Referees need to train on all of these things every day of the week, just as the players do in their clubs, every day. This is something I can’t say I see very often — at least here in South America — a referee who’s completely up-to-date with the professional world and who acts, shall we say, like a professional at all times.

Related to this, do different styles of play from country to country present different challenges to referees? And is there a difference between refereeing an international match, a continental club match or a domestic league match?

Absolutely. Of course, the rules of the game are always the same. You don’t pick and choose, or tweak them depending on the context; the rules are always the same. What you do have to consider somewhat is your own strategy and tactics when kick off arrives. Why? Because if you compare our local league in Argentina, it’s a game that, while it’s got quicker, is frequently centred around the midfield. Everything is defined there. Whoever wins the midfield battle, that’s the team who will have more opportunities to win the match. If you’re going to referee a match in England, meanwhile, well, it’s a lot faster. Players touch the ball once or twice at a time, and you’re more likely to see quick, direct passes — lots of distance to cover! You need to be open to switching your refereeing strategy, then, because your job is going to need you to be able to read the game very quickly, so as to be able to get where the ball’s been played to, only to almost immediately have to turn round and head back to the other penalty box. The game there is end to end, and is very dynamic. It goes from one area of the pitch to another very quickly. Whereas in Argentinian football, you have to be more focused on the players’ tempers, on when they come together. Why’s that? Because the players really get stuck in in their attempts to win the midfield battle. That’s their plan.

So, when you refer to the “strategies and tactics of refereeing”, you’re talking about how you adapt to the strategies and tactics of the match...

That’s one element. Only one, because aside from that strategy and that tactic, you have to also consider what it means to work in a team, since referees work in teams. As they work on the technical side, the referee’s technique is expressed in making good tactical choices when it comes to making a refereeing decision. Strategy is more complex than that, but you’d have, for instance, analysis of the game as an aspect of your strategy — as one part of it, not the whole thing. And then again, there’s another difference when you talk about national team football. You’re going to see a much more hard-running game, players who are physically well-equipped, very well prepared, and as a result you’re definitely going to have to run more. There won’t be as much ‘friction’ between players but you have to pay a lot more attention to the big decisions, because almost every match is decided in or around the penalty area. That means that in those matches, you have to be very precise when the time arrives to take your decisions, especially inside the box.

Have you noticed any change in the media visibility of referees since you became a ref?

Yes, a big change. Everyone looks at every match afterwards on television and decides whether you did well or did badly. Well, sometimes referees do make mistakes, and they should be responsible, they should work to get over those errors. Sometimes, on the other hand, there’s a kind of journalism — at least here in Argentina — which isn’t exactly overburdened with an understanding of the rules of the game and the factors affecting how referees make their decisions. That journalism can confuse the fans and spectators a lot, but well... that’s how it goes. Whoever passes judgement on whether a referee is good or bad, from a TV studio, can be a very influential factor, and so you have to prepare yourself. Your preparation needs to be focused, so that during a game you’re as close as possible to what everyone’s going to see on screen.

In England it seems like every time we go out of an international tournament, some of the press reaction is aimed at the referee in some way, for instance if an English player is sent off — Beckham in 1998, or Rooney... who you sent off yourself.

[Chuckling] Yes, that’s right... in Germany, in 2006.

Do you see the same kind of reaction in Argentina, of blaming the referee?

Perhaps a little, but we’re a little more... more self-punishing. We’re more likely to blame ourselves. If we go out of a World Cup, we’ll say, “We’re absolutely awful, we’re good for nothing...” and then a little later we might find a way to shift the blame: “This coach can’t carry on, he’s done everything badly, the directors [of the AFA] have been awful as well”; or perhaps, “We’re slipping from where should be, we want a change now, everything has to change...”

Neither of those is very healthy, is it?

Not at all! Both attitudes seem pathological to me. Most unhealthy.

The reason I asked those questions is that you yourself are now part of the media discourse surrounding referees. Do you think that discourse affects how the game is refereed? Does it put more pressure on referees?

It’s a complicated subject for referees. In 2008, I was part of AFA’s Directorship of Referee Training, where I was responsible for training the referees and one of the first things I told the ones I trained — because there were ex-referees who worked on TV and other media — was about how angry one gets as a referee towards that ex-ref who used to be his colleague and who now analyses him, criticises him on television, and I’d always tell them, “Don’t worry about that stuff, sooner or later you’ll realise why it’s happening. Why is it happening? Because at one time that person was a referee, but he’s not any more. Now he’s an analyst, and he has to do his job, which is analysing. I can like him or not like him, I can like or not like what he says, I can agree or I can disagree, but he’s not a referee any more. That’s in the past. Now he’s an analyst. And one has to have the intelligence to keep learning. And of course, you should also take on board the analysis of an ex-colleague, because as well as his capabilities and understanding, he’s also lived the experience of being on the field of play — he knows the things that happen to a referee, what a referee feels, what he thinks — and it’s much preferable that suddenly an ex-colleague analyses you, than that you’re being analysed by a journalist who doesn’t have quite the same understanding of that stuff, who hasn’t had the experience of being out there on the pitch.

My idea, now that I’m an analyst myself, isn’t to be down on the referee, kill or criticise the referee, but rather to look specifically at the decisions the referee takes, how he takes them, and look at why this or that referee has had a good or a bad day. 

The second part of this question was whether there’s anything you’d like to change — or that you do try to change — in how the media cover refereeing decisions.

People say, “Hey, I think this, I feel this way, I believe...” No. “Belief” is about the game. But there’s something in common for everyone: the laws. If we take the laws of the game as the starting point for the discussion, we’ll be able to have a much more encompassing theory of it, and we’ll be able to come to an agreement much more quickly. If everyone keeps seizing on, “No, I believe this,” or, “I think whatever...” No. There’s no “I”. The rules of the game are what decides what needs to be done. Part of how I approach my media job is precisely that, making people understand that it’s wrong to talk in such a personalised way in these discussions. That is, the idea isn’t to be a god of refereeing but to keep up-to-date with the rules of the game so that you can communicate them more clearly.

Also the fan, the television viewer... we help them to analyse and they can analyse it with us, not because I’m the holder of The Truth, but because the viewer analyses me. My belief is that if I can introduce that idea to television, it changes the discourse a little. Why? Because when one is a reference point in the world of refereeing — through being in the media, and for people, for society, I mean — one can say, from a refereeing point of view, whether a point is a good one, or a bad one, or an okay one. So, I try to use that fact to teach people as well, to instruct... so they get a sense of how complicated and difficult it is when the moment arrives to take a decision, how that process can be trained in referees to aid their decision-making, the quantity and quality of their decisions — the lot.

Now, back to the 2006 World Cup. It’s late on during the final. You’re putting your hand into your pocket to take out the red card and show it to Zinédine Zidane. What thoughts are going through your head? You must have known already that it was going to be a huge incident...

You know something? At the time, I really didn’t. With the act of refereeing matches — and the number of matches I’d refereed — well, you just try and take the best decisions possible. Why? Because just as players score goals and celebrate those goals, when a referee makes a big decision, for us that’s like scoring a goal, you see? For ourselves. The ref feels happy enough with the rules to be able to make a good decision. Totally independently of what the decision might be, of which players it involves or of where it’s made. It could be in the domestic league, in an international match, in the local club round the corner from your house, but the important thing is to take those decisions — and make them better decisions every time. That way, you’re always scoring more goals!

So at that point, no. Obviously, after the match I realised that it had been an enormous decision, thanks to the big media reaction to it. But right now, as I’m showing him the card, no. Showing him that red card, or showing the red card to Rooney, or showing... oh, there was one to a Czech Republic player [Tomáš Ujfaluši] during Czech Republic v Ghana... or showing a red card here in my own country. It’s just a player on a team... pfff. It’s the same.

Obviously, that decision was correct. A headbutt to the chest — no room for doubt there! But discussion has continued about the role of the fourth official in that decision. In 2006, did you get a word in your ear from the fourth official?

[Standing up to pace around the lobby, as if he’s back on the pitch] It was all done over the headset. When Materazzi fell to the floor, the ball was up the other end of the pitch and of course I was keeping up with play over there. I whistle for a handball and give a free-kick. Then play switches and goes back into the half of the pitch Materazzi was lying in, but on the other wing, and I remember it was at that point that I saw him lying on the floor. I wait to see whether he gets up — he doesn’t get up... doesn’t get up... doesn’t get up — and I stop the match. From where I was to where Materazzi was, was a walk of about 25, 30 metres. So immediately I ask my assistant, Darío García, [touching a finger to his ear to indicate the headset] “Darío, did you see anything? What happened? Why’s he on the floor?” He tells me, “I don’t know, I see him there on the floor but I didn’t see what happened.” Then I ask Rodolfo [Otero, the other assistant referee], who was on the other touchline, in the other half of the pitch — without much hope, because he was a long way away — and he tells me, “No, me neither.” And that’s where I start to think... [blows out his cheeks] I had a lot of doubts, clearly something had happened, but if no one saw what it was... and then Luis Medina Cantalejo’s voice [the fourth official] appears in my headset, and he says, “Horacio, Horacio, I saw it,” he says to me. “A really violent headbutt by Zidane on Materazzi, right in the chest.”

So obviously, when I get to the spot, I already know Zidane is on his way. I got to the spot, to where Materazzi was, and the Spaniard [Cantalejo] had already told me what I needed to know to make the decision that Zidane was going to leave the pitch. What I then asked [Cantalejo] was, “Why did he headbutt him?” — whether he’d seen whether Materazzi had done anything beforehand — and he replied, “No, honestly I don’t know. I just saw the headbutt.” And when I got there, I realised that the players didn’t know what was going on either, apart from [Gianluigi] Buffon who was protesting to the assistant, pressuring him, and [Gennaro] Gattuso, but the others saw almost nothing, just like me. And the noise in the stadium... the crowd just went silent, as if to say, “What’s going on? Why is that player lying on the floor?” And me in the middle of it, thinking, “Right then... how do I make this decision clear? Zidane’s going, he’s standing there calmly.”

It didn’t seem very correct, to me, to just BANG! take a red card out like that, as if from nowhere, with the crowd and players all having seen that I’d been in the other half and hadn’t seen anything. So, since the headsets were only new, you can see if you watch it on video that I go over to Darío García... I went over to Darío, but I knew Darío didn’t know anything! So, why? Well, because that is understandable. Everyone understands if you go over to the assistant that it’s because the assistant is going to tell you something to help you make a decision. So I get to Darío, and I just say to him, “Focused!” — I say it to him and I say it to myself, to remind us both, “there are still 10 minutes to go, stay focused.” — I turn around and go to Zidane and take out the red card.

Even though he hadn’t been the assistant who told you...

No, he didn’t tell me anything. How could he, if he didn’t know? When I realised I needed to get the card out I thought, “Right then, let’s see, how can I make this easily understood?” And I say to myself, “If the assistant calls you over, everyone knows that’s because he’s going to tell you something. It was a little bit of a disguise, but it contained some truth as to how the decision was taken.

One of the questions that’s continued to be asked since is whether the fourth official, Cantalejo, saw it happen on a television replay, or live.

At every point, the [fourth] referee was standing on the halfway line. The one who started this complaint, saying that he saw it on the video was [Raymond] Domenech, the France manager. Why? Well... at World Cup matches, between the two benches, there’s a monitor of sorts. It’s between the two banks, but set back from the pitch. That is to say, the fourth official has to walk about 10m to see that monitor and then come back to pitchside. If the fourth official had done that, it would have been easy for anyone to spot. And the fourth official was always on the halfway line. When I spoke to Luis, I asked how he’d seen it, to be sure. That is, going back to the game, when he tells me, “I saw it, I saw a headbutt,” right there and then. After the match I asked him again, whether he’d seen it on the monitor or on the field of play, and he told me, “No, I saw it on the pitch. The monitor didn’t come into it.”

Following on from that, I wanted to ask as well whether you’d like referees to be allowed to use—

Ah, technology! I believe that when there’s a case where the doubt and confusion is that big, that important and involves something that’s going to affect the development of the match in such a major way, I think so, yes. Why not?

Only for fouls, or if there’s doubt as to whether the ball’s crossed the goal line, or...?

Let’s see. Technology today is a very useful tool. Football is — the rules of football, for the most part are — totally subjective, not objective. That is, there are very few things in football which you can measure. Goal or no goal, ball on or off the pitch, those are things you don’t have to interpret, whereas whether a foul was inside or outside the penalty box, or offside decisions — was he off when he received the ball or not? But in which phase? Because when the referee has to decide to sanction an offside that was about a player moving into position to distract an opposing player [without receiving the ball], it becomes interpretative. It’s become subjective. So there are very few things and maybe you could add to the list, I don’t know, aggression, a stamp behind the referee’s back so that he can’t see it. There are very few things that can be measured.

In terms of all the rest of the laws of the game, it’s very interpretative. I mean, can the referee interpret whatever he wants? No. He’s got a law to interpret and the standards that spring up from that law contain a concept which you have to interpret according to what’s written down.

Would you like to see any other change in how matches are refereed and rules applied?

No... for me, the rules of football are just fine. I’d like to see just that, how technology could be used a little to see whether football can incorporate it within the rules of the game — to start with, how technology and those rules can live with one another, how they adapt, and afterwards, going forward, to see whether we can use it for other points in the game, perhaps.

As well as technology, there’s also the example of the officials behind each goal, as we saw in the Europa League and the Champions League...

The Paraguayan league has them as well.

And here in Argentina, there’s the aerosol spray to mark out where the wall needs to stand at free-kicks. I sometimes take foreigners to games here and they always say, “What a good idea!”

For me the aerosol isn’t really that important for a referee. Why? Because the only thing it does — the only positive it has — is that there’s a line and everyone can see that line, not just the referee and the players but also the fans and therefore see whether the wall creeps forward or not. The thing is, there’s nothing to indicate whether the referee’s made a mistake in drawing out the line — whether it’s at 5 metres from the ball, say, or 9 metres. Plus, there’s no guarantee the line will actually be respected, because, well, it’s Argentinian football... they’ll kick the line away so it disappears or they’ll just stand in front of it. So, using that aerosol spray isn’t going to help improve the standard of officiating.

The officials behind the goals, I think have good and bad points. The down side is that instead of four officials, you’ve got six. That makes reaching an agreement and working in a team much more difficult. That’s point one. Point two: what needs to be asked about and measured out is whether the quality of decisions inside the penalty box has improved with those two officials behind the goals, or whether it’s remained the same. I think it’s remained the same. They haven’t improved. Also, to transfer that to South America, for most of South America [aside from Paraguay], it would require a lot of preparation — we’d need to train up a huge number of new referees and get them all up to Primera División standard just for that job, and the budget that would require would be... well, it’d be a big investment, and it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. It seems to me more like a kind of marketing strategy. They look really nice, don’t they, standing behind the goal? But it must be said that they offer greater security because there are more people “controlling” the game, and who knows, the players maybe think, “Okay, I’ve got another pair of eyes looking at me now. He’ll call a foul if he sees it, he’ll punish me...” I don’t know about that, really, but I suppose it would be one more person watching.

No one’s perfect. You must have taken a decision, at some point—

[Laughing] Loads! Awful ones!

—and then, on seeing it on TV, realised it was mistaken. What does a referee think when that happens? And does the size or importance of the match affect those thoughts? If you’d realised later that evening that the red card you showed to Zidane had been unjustified...

No. A mistake is a mistake. Committing a mistake in a World Cup final, in the local league or in a continental competition is all the same. It’s a mistake. It could be more or less noticeable for the media, more or fewer people might see that mistake, that’s all circumstances, nothing more. But the mistake always lives on with you, no-one likes doing anything badly, no-one likes being wrong and much less to see on the television when you’ve messed up a decision, because, well, you think about the other person — that is to say, you think of the player, who’s trained so hard, put in so much effort, of the manager, the fans, and then you made one wrong decision, which might even have thrown the result of the match totally — and you feel awful.

When you first sit down afterwards, after a while you start to realise that everyone makes mistakes, that you’re a human being and that everything you do, you do in good faith, both the correct decisions and the wrong ones. And then you can start to take that pressure off, because at first you feel so guilty.

Do you remember any of your decisions in particular that were just awful?

Hmm, which ones should I tell you... I remember in a Ferro v River match, I awarded three penalties. Not one of them should have been given! [Laughs] Let’s see, other matches... whenever you look at really controversial incidents... when they’re within a certain range of being correct or being a mistake, it’s like this: some people think you’ve messed up and others don’t, they say you were right. There was another one in the Primera División, Unión de Santa Fe against Newell’s Old Boys, a short player, there was a shot on goal, he was standing on the line, little short guy, and he jumped up with both hands. I give the penalty, because he’d touched it over with his hand. But he hadn’t — the ball had hit the crossbar, never touched his hands, they were at the same height as the bar, but the ball hit the crossbar between his hands, he had them wide open. That was a mistake which caused a lot of anger, partly because [having given the penalty] I had to send him off and apart from that he was a nice kid... yes, so many mistakes! [That late penalty gave Newell’s a 2-1 win].

What about the Ferro v River game, who did you give the penalties to?

Two of them to Ferro, one to River. Does that make me a Ferro fan?

Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. To finish, you have two boys—

And two girls. Two sons, two daughters.

Of course, I’m sure you want all of them to live their own lives, but if one of your sons does go into football, what would make you happier: that he become the next Elizondo, or the next Messi?

No question, every single time the next Messi! For so many reasons. First, because as a player he’d have a lot more people who would look up to him. Albeit it can’t be entirely easy to live like that, because there are so many things that must just stop being private, perhaps you’re not left with much freedom to just do what you want. But of course, if he feels happy with that life, I’m happy for him. Wanting to be an Elizondo would be more complicated, partly because he’d always have hanging over him the fact that everyone would compare him with me. Are you better or worse than your father? That can’t be fun. Sons [of famous fathers] are always going to live being compared, from that point of view, and I don’t think it would be a very productive comparison for my sons, I think at some point that you need to make a cut between father and son — my father was that, but this is what I am. But without a doubt, if he’s able to become a Messi instead of an Elizondo... [Grins broadly]