The year 2006 will live long in the memory of Argentina's Horacio Elizondo. A PE teacher by profession, Elizondo left his own indelible mark on refereeing at this summer's FIFA World Cup™ , taking charge of both the Opening Game and the Final at Germany 2006.
The 43-year-old poetry enthusiast did not stop there. In total, he took charge of five matches on world football's greatest stage, a new record which he shares with Mexican arbiter Benito Archundia.
In the wake of his exploits on German soil, the Argentine official was widely praised both at domestic level and by the international footballing community at large. This recognition culminated in him being chosen to referee the final of the Copa Libertadores in August.
As if to set the seal on an unforgettable year, in early December Elizondo announced his decision to put away his notebook for good and retire from the game he loves. Soon after, the well-respected official shared his thoughts on the year gone by in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
My 2006: Horacio Elizondo
For me personally, this has been a year like no other. It's been the year that I achieved my goals, and the culmination of all my hard work and dedication. Many people might think that my greatest success was refereeing the World Cup Final, but they'd be mistaken. My biggest achievement, and the most complicated, was being able to step away from the game.
Once you've fulfilled your greatest ambitions, it's no easy task to admit to yourself that there's nothing else left for you to achieve. I didn't want to be up there blocking the path of some driven, energetic newcomer, nor have to make my farewells after a series of poor performances. I felt that this was the best way to go, as a winner.
The World Cup meant so much to me, although a great deal of the credit for that must go to my assistants, Dario (Garcia) and Rodolfo (Otero). The lion's share of the plaudits might have come my way, but that's somewhat unfair. They were my inspiration out there on the pitch. We made a success of working as a team, just like all the other match officials that took part in the tournament. The solidarity, mutual respect, and the way we all got along so well really showed what the spirit of Fair Play is all about.
As far as the actual football is concerned, I was once again won over by the charms of Ronaldinho , despite the fact that he has yet to meet the expectations placed on him at the top tournaments. The man who most impressed me was Italy's Fabio Cannavaro , not just because of his ability, but also for his determination to enjoy the game. He's always in a good mood, with a smile on his face and some jokes and banter, and that makes him perform even better. It doesn't surprise me that he's been named FIFA World Player of the Year .
Aside from this, the tournament in Germany has had an impact on other areas of my life. For example, I was shocked to see just how far-reaching the effects of my performances were. From arriving back in Argentina to find the airport full of people waiting for me, to meeting the country's President (Nestor Kirchner), or being applauded in stadiums across the country.
At first I found it a touch embarrassing, I didn't know how to respond, but then I was able to relax a bit and I ended up really enjoying myself. Even now people still stop me on the street to say "well done" and congratulate me on my retirement.
That said, it's now time to face up to a new year and a new stage in my life, where I'm going to have chill out a bit and stop thinking like a referee. It's the beginning of a new phase of my life and I have plenty of things to be getting on with. I'm not really clear as to what steps I need to take next as far as work is concerned, but I do know exactly what I need to start doing in my personal life. I'm going to make the most of this quiet spell to retrace my roots and catch up with my friends after this crazily busy period. I'm gradually starting to come back down to earth again, so hopefully I can get back to enjoying the things I love once more.
Let's hope that 2007 is an even better year for football, although for that to be the case everybody has to play their part. We need to work harder all the time, be ever more professional and demand even more of ourselves, just like I did during my time as a referee. I believe change begins with yourself - that's the key. If everybody involved in the game follows that path, then football will be the winner.