On 9 July 2006, Horacio Elizondo became the first referee to officiate in both the Opening Match and the Final of a FIFA World Cup™ competition. Following that personal and professional landmark the Argentinian, a PE teacher by profession, retired from refereeing and has since taken up a post as a FIFA Instructor on the Refereeing Assistance Programme, performing a number of functions at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
With Sunday’s Final between Spain and the Netherlands fast approaching, Elizondo sat down exclusively with FIFA.com to give his views on what it means to referee the biggest game of them all, and also offered some practical advice to his successor, England’s Howard Webb.
FIFA.com: Horacio, four years have gone by since the Final in Berlin. What did that game mean to you on a personal and professional level?
Horacio Elizondo: It was the culmination of 25 years of hard work, a period in which I experienced many different learning phases. I went through some good times and some not-so-good times, and I had the opportunity to prepare myself and develop my ability to stay calm in tough situations. Refereeing that France-Italy game was a dream come true for me.
Reaching the Final is the pinnacle for a player. It must be a similar feeling for a referee to take charge of one.
Absolutely. Every referee dreams about going to the World Cup and to make it is a big achievement in itself. If you then get the chance to go on and take charge of the Final, you feel as if you’re the world champion.
What do you remember most clearly about the France-Italy match?
I remember the support of my bosses and colleagues, and my wife was there at the stadium too. It was important to be able to share an experience like that with my family. I also remember the greetings and messages of support from Argentina. As you can see, it has a lot to do with keeping your emotions in check and that helped us stay calm going into the game.
And the game itself?
I recall concentrating very hard, so much so that it all went by very quickly for me. It went like that. It might sound strange but I just took it as another match. I’d been preparing all my life to referee in finals and I was ready to face the challenge and to do it responsibly.
Have you ever watched the game again?
I’ve got it safely stored away at home but I’ve only watched a few minutes here and there. I’ll watch more of it in a few years’ time, mainly for my children, who are still little. I want them to see that their father was there.
In what way did life change for you when you returned to Argentina after the game?
In every way. My family had told me a little about what had been going on but when I got to the airport there were 300 people waiting for me. For me, and I was just a referee. It was crazy. I don’t think you’re ever prepared for a situation like that. I carried on refereeing for another three months and the fans would applaud me when I went out on to the pitch. It was a real education. You have to show a lot of mental discipline to keep your feet on the ground. Everybody wanted to speak to me, the country’s president called to congratulate me and I was made an honorary citizen by several cities. That December I decided to retire, bring that phase of my life to an end and prepare for the next one.
Before a game footballers sometimes envisage themselves scoring a goal or saving a penalty. What kind of things do referees try and picture in their minds?
Getting the big decisions right. For a referee getting a decision correct in a pressure situation is like scoring a goal.
Refereeing is not the most popular job in football. Why would anyone decide to go into it?
No youngster ever has the ambition of becoming a referee one day and that’s entirely logical. There’s nothing in the social and cultural environment they grow up in that would make them want to do something like that. They don’t have any motivation to do so. They prefer to play. That’s what gives them pleasure after all. In my case I played football till I was 15, which was when I realised I didn’t have much chance of fulfilling my dream and playing in the first division. When I was 20 I refereed a handball match and one of the teachers there said I had what it took. That was when I started to get excited about it. I loved teaching and anything that involved officiating. I worked it in with my favourite sport and found my place in the world.
Let’s turn to the South Africa 2010 Final. What advice would you give to Sunday’s referee Howard Webb?
Enjoy it. He’ll be living his dream and he’ll be lucky enough to make it come true. I’d tell him to go about his work calmly and without fear, because at the end of the day it’s just another game. As soon as he starts making decisions he’ll start to feel better and begin enjoying the experience.
And on a personal level? What kind of things will be going through your head when you see him walking out on to the pitch?
I won’t feel nostalgic, I have to say. I’m very aware that it’s all part of the past now and that it was a lovely experience in my life. I don’t see myself on the pitch now when I watch games although my family and friends perhaps feel certain things from time to time. It will bring back a fleeting and very special memory but nothing more than that. It was a lovely moment but it’s over now.