Argentinian referee Horacio Elizondo made history at Germany 2006, becoming the first match official to take charge of the Opening Match and the Final of a FIFA World Cup™. On the tenth anniversary of the competition, he shared his memories of it with us, with talk inevitably turning to the event that left an indelible mark on the tournament: the sending-off of France’s Zinedine Zidane in the Final against Italy.
“When you’re young you dream about the things you’d like to do, but then life takes you in other directions,” said the former referee, who knew at the age of 15 that he was not going to make it as a professional footballer. “I realised that there were a lot of young players like me, and that it was going to be very difficult to make it to the first division.”
He chose instead to devote his energies to athletics, with his love for sport in general eventually leading him to become a PE teacher. In time, refereeing would allow him to fulfil the dreams he harboured as a child, albeit by an alternative route: “I achieved my objective not by becoming a player or an Olympic athlete but a referee, first at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and then at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.”
The road to those major events was long and demanding. It took Elizondo a whole ten years to progress from his first international match to the 2006 Final in Berlin, a journey in which he endured the frustration of missing out on a place at Korea/Japan 2002.
His preparations for the big event in Germany were extensive to say the least, as the 52-year-old Argentinian explained: “It wasn’t a month or 35 or 40 days. I spent three years working towards the objective of preparing in the best possible way for that World Cup and being up to the job when I got there. And it was the same for my team, not just me.
“It was at that World Cup that they were first called refereeing teams and that refereeing began to be envisaged and seen in a different way, with specific efforts being made to build confidence, which is absolutely crucial to teamwork. That was vital and very important.”
The preparation paid off, enabling Elizondo to arrive in Germany in peak condition and in pursuit of a very clear goal: “The aim was not to prepare a referee to take charge of a World Cup match, or two or three, or even half a match, but to prepare us for refereeing the Final.”
Elizondo and his assistants, Rodolfo Otero and Dario Garcia, were selected for the Opening Match between Germany and Costa Rica in Munich. Recalling the experience, he said: “I was absolutely thrilled and it was a big responsibility because it was down to us to show the world how the Laws of the Game were going to be applied and interpreted.”
The Argentinian trio would officiate at five matches at Germany 2006, each one of which posed a different challenge. “The second game was the toughest: Czech Republic against Ghana,” recalled Elizondo. “They were two very physical teams and it was a physical game with a lot of fouls. The pace of the game was very fast too, and the players never let up.
“Then we had Switzerland-Korea Republic, who were both playing for a place in the next round. After that it was England v Portugal in the quarter-finals, where a mistake can be fatal because you don’t have the chance to make amends. That game went to penalties. And then came the Final.”
A grand occasion
There was a surprise in store for Elizondo and his team in the biggest game of the tournament. “Finals are usually quieter affairs because teams try not to make any mistakes, but that was a different kind of final,” said the ex-referee.
“We hadn’t even gone five minutes and I was giving a penalty to France,” he added. “Then Dario Garcia disallowed a goal for Italy. And then came the equaliser and the famous incident between Zidane and (Marco) Materazzi.”
‘Well, that’s it. Zidane’s got to go’
Explaining his take on the clash that marked the end of the Frenchman’s career, the Argentinian official said: “I was a long way away from it. I stopped play and went over to where the Italian player was. I asked my assistants on the microphone link if they’d seen anything. They both said they hadn’t.
“And then on came Luis Medina Cantalejo, who was the fourth official. He said: ‘Violent headbutt by No10 white on…’. I can’t remember what number Materazzi was wearing.”
Elizondo then explained the moment that made such a mark on that World Cup: “Medina Cantalejo said to me: ‘You won’t believe it when you see it’. And I thought to myself: ‘Oh no! Something terrible’s happened here’. And thanks to those three years of working together, of trust and teamwork, I believed in what Luis was telling me. I said: ‘Well, that’s it. Zidane’s got to go’.”
Player and referee came face to face again a year later. “It was in Murcia, in the south of Spain, at an adidas product launch,” explained Elizondo. “They asked if either of us had a problem with being at an event together. We both said we didn’t.
“We stayed at the same hotel, and we crossed paths in the lobby a few times. We had breakfast: him with his family and me with mine. We all said hello to each other. We didn’t speak at all about that match, that Final and what happened, which tells you how good Zinedine Zidane is with people.”
Having made history at Germany 2006, Elizondo returned home to find that things were not quite the same as when he had left: “It was amazing to go back to Argentina and see the number of reporters waiting for me. It was like the return of the prodigal son. So many big things happened in a short space of time, and I wasn’t ready for them.
“I was embarrassed at everything that happened: walking out on the pitch and having both sets of fans applaud me, signing autographs, getting a call from the Argentinian president...”
Elizondo took charge of his last game at the end of 2006, a match between Boca Juniors and Lanus at La Bombonera. It was a game the home side had to win to lift the title. They lost. After sounding the final whistle, the man in the middle received an unexpected farewell from the stands.
Recalling the send-off, he said: “It was the kind of thing you’d expect for a player, not a referee. I wasn’t ready for it, for it to be so romantic, if you will, so positive. I was expecting to go out on a negative note, something more traumatic, more controversial. It was a new experience for me, something new that I learned, and it really warmed my heart.”