Referees on a hiding to nothing in El Clásico
Media start the onslaught on officals even before the game has started
Barcelona captain Carles Puyol argues with referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco during the heated Spanish Cup semi-final second leg against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in February. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)
Referee Cesar Muniz Fernandez shows the red card to Carlos Sanchez of Elche after the La Liga match against Real Madrid at Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero in September. Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Who’d be a ref, eh? Or worse, a Spanish referee. Ten days ago the referee for today’s clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou – Alberto Undiano Mallenco from Pamplona – was announced. The Spanish football press kicked into gear.
The national newspapers carried articles about the referees chosen for week 10 of La Liga, leading with titbits about Undiano. At the end of the articles, the 10 match-day referees were listed alongside their appointments like the six bulls chosen for an evening’s bullfighting.
Over the ensuing days, a flurry of “Who is Alberto Undiano Mallenco?” articles surfaced, summarising the 40-year-old’s biographical details. A sociologist by training, in October 2000 he became the youngest referee to take charge of a top-flight game in Spain when he made his debut in la primera división.
The profiles also pored over the contentious moments in his referring career, which include an excitable afternoon in Port Elizabeth when he brandished nine yellow cards, and a red card for Miroslav Klose, during Germany’s 1-0 defeat to Serbia in the 2010 World Cup finals.
The win-loss-draw statistics of his matches involving Barcelona and Real Madrid loomed large. He’s Spain’s most experienced referee and has marshalled seven clásicos (three wins each, one draw), but commentators in Spain conclude his appointment is good news for Real Madrid. “Favorito Undiano” ran one headline in Marca, Spain’s biggest-selling sports newspaper, which is notoriously pro-Madrid.
In April 2011 Undiano was in charge of a heated Copa del Rey final between Barca and Real at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium. A scorching header from Cristiano Ronaldo in extra-time decided the match, 1-0. Afterwards, Barça complained that the roughing up of their players by Real Madrid went unchecked by Undiano.
The decision to list match officials in the press in advance of – rather than after – fixtures, unlike most other countries, opens up Spanish refs up to unwelcome scrutiny.
“The real show is the players,” says Rafa Guerrero, a former linesman in La Liga, “but if a journalist starts a week before to examine the referee and says, ‘This is the guy who damaged Barça last year’ or this kind of information, it’s terrible because fans read this and go to the stadium influenced by what they read.
“This generates violence. I have experienced it; I have had to get protection at my house. My boy came home from school one day because the other children said his father was a robber.”
Spanish football supporters can be very provincial. They take it personally when a referee makes a dubious call, as if he has brought local dishonour.
“It’s different in other countries,” adds Guerrero. “For example, I was a linesman in a Champions League semi-final between Manchester United and Juventus in 1999. The referee was Manuel Díaz Vega, a Spanish guy.
“It was in Manchester at the “Theatre of Dreams”. Manchester United were losing 1-0 until the 88th minute, when they scored a goal, from Teddy Sheringham, but he was a little offside. I disallowed the goal and nothing happened. There was no problem. I didn’t hear anything, only a low groan.
“If this happened here in Spain, for me, it would have been impossible to get out of the stadium without a police escort. I would have had to leave by helicopter.”
The local police in Elche, a city in the region of Valencia known for its shoe factories, were innundated after a controversial league tie between Real Madrid and Elche a month ago.