Referees on a hiding to nothing in El Clásico

Media start the onslaught on officals even before the game has started

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.

Unwelcome scrutiny
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.

“We’ve had over 120 mentions about football in the last 10 minutes. Remember we’re here to help you on questions of SAFETY;-)” its police station tweeted following mass complaints about a “robbery” in the district.

With the sides level on 1-1, Real Madrid’s central defender Pepe engineered a penalty in Elche’s box by dropping to the ground, pulling his marker Carlos “The Rock” Sánchez with him, as if he had been pushed.

It was the 96th minute. Ronaldo stepped forward and converted the penalty, securing a 2-1 win for Real Madrid. Elche’s players were incensed. At fulltime, they swarmed around ref César Muñiz, which led to a flurry of yellow cards and a red card for the beleaguered Sánchez.

When pressed, Victoriano Sánchez Arminio, the president of the Referees Technical Committee of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, wondered if the error by Muñiz might have been due to domestic strife.

“I don’t think he got it right,” he said. “Maybe he had some family issue that meant he wasn’t in the right frame of mind.”

Watching events unfold on television, Barcelona player Gerard Piqué was bemused, sarcastically referring to the match as “a comedy film” to his 7 million followers on Twitter.

Real Madrid's manager Carlo Ancelotti responded by urging Piqué to "focus on playing rather than talking".

Álvaro Arbeloa posted a picture of himself, Isco and four other beaming Real Madrid team-mates on the team coach after the match with a message alluding to Barcelona’s own reputation for sly theatrics:

"Very happy with the three points! I'm pleased some people have swapped the theatre for films. This is always good!"

'What a robbery'
At the eleventh hour, the sports press in Barcelona had to quickly re-jig their front pages for the following morning's breakfast tables. "What a robbery!" cried Sport, while El Mundo Deportivo led with a headline, "That's how Madrid win!", a catchphrase for antimadridistas who allege that Real Madrid's success owes a lot to favouritism.

Ironically, it is Real Madrid’s fans who have been majoring on the perceived unfairness of Spain’s referees over the last several years.

Villarato is a conspiracy theory named after the chief of the Spanish Football Federation, Ángel María Villar. It is propagated by Madrid-based journalists with the zeal of religious fundamentalists. The theory is referees help Barcelona because their former president Joan Laporta supported Villar's election while Real's president Florentino Pérez backed the man he defeated.

"If referees make mistakes which help Barça, they get promoted," says Tomás Roncero, a journalist with AS, one of Madrid's sports newspapers, "and if they make mistakes which help Madrid, they are machacados, smashed. The referees know all this and so they apply self-censorship. They realise that if they make a mistake, it is better if it favours Barça or if it damages Madrid."

It was striking that post-match media scrutiny of the Elche v Real match in September focused more on whether Muñiz had made a mistake rather than the fact Pepe had hoodwinked him. Highlight reels after a game feature dubious referring decisions as much as the goals that lit up a game.

Spare a thought then for Señor Undiano, the man in the middle this evening, who will be alone amongst 99,000 screaming people at the Camp Nou.

Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football's Greatest Rivalry, which is published by Bloomsbury.