Clockwise from top: Abraham Klein at his museum in Haifa in 2012;
booking Francis Lee during the 1970 World Cup;
and presiding over the Italy-Brazil classic in his final World Cup game.
Photograph: Abraham Klein/Popperfoto/Getty Images
The Forgotten Story of...
The 'Master of the Whistle'
Founder of Ken Aston Referee Society
Abraham Klein had his hands in his pockets. He was 36 years old and
about to Referee his first World Cup game. To one side stood Pele,
Carlos Alberto, Rivelino and Jairzinho; to the other Bobby Moore, Bobby
Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks. This was the grandest game,
between the favorites Brazil and the holders England; the final before
the final. The Referee was an unknown Israeli. One report said that
appointing him was "like sending a boy scout to Vietnam".
Klein trusted his ability; so did FIFA. But anybody with an anima would
have been nervous. He had Refereed international games before. Only five
of them, though, none anywhere near this stratosphere. This was a
football opera, and his hands were trembling like a violin string. It
gave a whole new meaning to the pre-match handshake. "I was very
nervous," he says. "My hands were shaking, so I put them in my pockets.
I did not want the players to see how my hands were moving. Then I took
them out and I decided to be strong in my body and in my hand." He met
both captains with an unyielding handshake, looked left and right and
blew the whistle for the start of the match. His life had just taken an
almighty fork in the road.
Cinderella as done by HBO
The past may be a foreign country, but that's no excuse for xenophobia.
The arrogance of modernity dictates that the best we have ever seen
becomes the best that ever there was. How would we know?
It's certainly true of Referees. At the end of the 20th century,
Pierluigi Collina was widely perceived to be the best referee in the
history of football. Collina was a wonderful Referee, surely the best of
his generation; beyond that, we don't really know. Suggestions that he
was bald head and shoulders above all other Referees is an insult to
those who excelled before him not least Abraham Klein, the marvelous
Israeli Referee who was generally accepted as the world's best in the
1970s and early 1980s. In a piece in the Times during Italia 90, the
veteran football writer David Miller said Klein was "probably the best
Referee for the past 20 years". Alan Robinson, the overseas and services
secretary of the English Referees' Association from 1968 to 2004,
described him as "the master of the whistle". In the interests of
balance, we must point out that not everybody concurred. Klein did not
appear in Graham Poll's list of the 50 greatest Referees of all time, a
list that includes and you'll like this Graham Poll.
Klein's is an astonishing story, pitched somewhere between feel good
fairytale and life-affirming quality drama; Cinderella as done by HBO.
To say his is a life less ordinary doesn't begin to do it justice. He
survived prejudice, politics and even the Holocaust to reach the top of
his trade. He made his World Cup debut in one of the tournament's most
famous matches - when, in Referee years, he was barely out of short
pants. He missed the 1974 World Cup because of the Munich massacre of
his fellow Israelis two years earlier. He was scandalously deprived of
the World Cup final of 1978, punished for his own scrupulous excellence.
He ran the line in the 1982 World Cup while not knowing whether his son
was alive or dead. He overcame all that to be regarded as peerless. No
wonder he says determination is his strongest characteristic.
It would be enough to take decades off most men, yet Klein is a miracle
of fitness and optimism. He turns 78 on 29 March, but his physical and
mental sharpness defy his age. He is still the same weight as he was
when he Refereed Brazil and England in 1970. Look down at your stomach
now and imagine that it will be the same in 42 years' time. Exactly.
Klein is the type of person who sees the good in everything and everyone
(except baseball, a rare hate). When we talk, back in January, he is
full of the joys of Novak Djokovic versus Lleyton Hewitt in the
Australian Open. "Wonderful tennis. What can I tell you?" Even on the
phone from the other side of the world, he radiates an avuncular wisdom.
He has a habit of saying, "I must tell you
", and when he does you feel
like you are settling down for an audience with Mr Miyagi. Klein is also
unfailingly polite; when you say matter-of-factly that he was the
world's best Referee, he says simply, "Thank you, thank you".
If this paints a picture of Klein as a soft man, don't believe it. He
has an innate toughness that allowed him to control matches with natural
authority in an age when hard man roamed the green with malevolent
intent. That, and a level of preparation that would put most modern
Referees to shame, never mind those 30 years ago, were two of the keys
to his success.
Klein has the lovely habit of talking in the present tense, with a voice
that although his generally excellent English is occasionally broken
you want to present verbatim. He regularly uses the phrase "I feel it",
testament to the sixth sense that served him so well on the field.
Another of his favorite words is "unbelievable". This is no Chris
Kamara-like tic. Klein's story is one you wouldn't dream of scripting.
'Don't eat all the bread!'
Timisoara is often described as the most beautiful city in Romania. A
piece in this paper spoke of its "bold, age-worn architecture",
"handsome, cracked grandeur" and "wealth of genuinely grand Habsburg
buildings". This gallery shows that your retinas could do a lot worse.
Yet sometimes beauty is in the mind's eye of the beholder. There is no
beauty for Abraham Klein. Timisoara is where he was born and spent his
first 13 years, six of them during the second world war. "My memories
from that city are so bad that when I was in Romania as a Uefa observer
two or three times they ask me if I want to go to Timosara to see my
city," he says. "I told them, 'I don't want to go'. What I remember, I
don't want to remember again."
Klein eventually escaped Timisoara, one of 500 children who were put on
a train to Holland. "My mother was still alive," he says. "Many of my
family were killed in Auschwitz, in the concentration camps. My father
was lucky that he left Romania in 1937 before the war starts. When the
war starts it was impossible to leave the country with my mother. For
five years it was very difficult for us. My mother had six sisters; we
lived with them and the parents in two rooms. The situation was not the
best." It's so far beyond our comprehension that there's no point even
trying to empathize.
The train journey took three weeks, with very little food and no
parents; those who were still alive had to stay in Romania. The children
were taken to a school in Apeldoorn "a very small place in Holland, a
beautiful place" where they would stay for a year. "I remember the
first meal we had. It was lunchtime after three weeks on the train. When
we arrived at the restaurant there was plenty of bread on the table. We
run inside, all the children, we start eating the bread. Then they come
to tell us, 'Wait, wait, we have plenty of food we have soup, milk,
potatoes. Don't eat all the bread!'"
The memories are some of the happiest of Klein's life. "I must tell you
that whenever I come back to Holland, I go to see Apeldoorn." After a
year, he went to a kibbutz in Israel, then back to live with his parents
in Haifa. "I come to the conclusion that the life in a kibbutz is not
for me." The kindness that he found in Apeldoorn tattooed itself on his
soul. "There are things in life that you cannot forget. When, after the
second world war, a country like Holland gives you the feeling that you
are at home; when they give you everything: food, education, sport,
these are things that you cannot forget. It was
Preparing to succeed
Abraham Klein was not supposed to be a Referee. He loved football and
wanted to be a footballer. His father had played for MTK Budapest in
Hungary; Klein was good, but not up to that standard. Serendipity did
what needed to be done. In the mid-50s, on a break from army duty, his
parents sent him to buy some trousers from a tailor called Jonas. Jonas
was about to leave to Referee an amateur game. He told Klein to come
with him, and that he would make his trousers after the game.
Jonas turned an ankle during the match. He asked Klein to step in.
|"I told him, 'I don't know the laws of the game'.
'But you've played the game?'
I told him, 'Yes I was a player, not the best but I know what is
So he said, 'The laws of the game are very simple, it's not
university. Somebody make a foul, you whistle.'
'That's all?' That's all the laws?'
'That's enough for this game.'
Klein showed such natural aptitude for Refereeing, and such enjoyment of
it, that he soon took the formal Refereeing examinations. He would catch
up with Jonas more than two decades later. Jonas later moved to New
York, and found Klein among 60,000 people at a New York Cosmos game.
"But," said Klein in this interview, "he didn't have my trousers
By then, Klein was wearing the trousers on the field of play. He rose
through the ranks, Refereeing army games, youth games, Israeli league
games and even the first meeting between teams from West Germany and
Israel. In 1969, Hapoel Nahariya played against an amateur German team
named Bayern Hof. Klein had no idea of its significance until he was
interviewed by a German TV company 40 years later for a documentary.
He had Refereed his first Israeli league game in 1958, at the age of 24;
six years later he graduated to international football, when Israel
played a friendly against the Netherlands. In 1965, at the age of 31, he
was given his first major game: Italy v Poland in Rome. It was on a
scale previously unimaginable. The biggest grounds in Israel held
20,000; now he would be officiating a World Cup qualifier in front of
80,000. Klein decided to take matters into his own hands a week before
the match, on his own initiative and out of his own pocket, he went to
watch Roma play Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico.
"I decided, alone, to take a plane in the morning," he says. "I come
back late with Alitalia, 10 o'clock at night I remember. I went to the
game, I bought a ticket; nobody knew that I was there. I was in the
stadium with the people, in the crowd, and I feel the weather, you know;
I feel how they behave. I was shocked, because 80,000 people were
shouting and crying."
He was not shocked a week later when he returned for the Poland game.
Klein's preparation could not have been more thorough. He learned as
much as possible about the players this in an age before computers,
never mind the internet, and when phone calls overseas were extremely
expensive. Klein wrote to a friend in Poland, asking for information on
their team, and persuaded Gazzetta dello Sport to send him a series of
cuttings. "They wrote everything every day about everybody," he says.
"They know more than the family about the player." He learned that Gigi
Rivera was a star player "and that the defenders try all the time to
kick him". Klein, always a keen exponent of the advantage rule - "one of
the most beautiful things in the game" - vowed to play it wherever
possible. Three of Italy's goals in a 6-1 win came from advantages. The
FIFA observers at the ground took notice.
Throughout his career, Klein was not prepared to fail. The level of his
preparation, both physical and mental, was extraordinary. He was not
years ahead of his time; he was a generation ahead. "It's a good
advantage not just in Refereeing but in everything in life if you
know the person who is standing before you," he says. He would study
hours of videos to see what tactics the teams used, which players dived,
which tried to bully opponents or Referees. In 1970 he arrived early and
spent a fortnight in the Camino Royale in Guadalajara, acclimatizing and
"I know the tactics of the Brazilian players," he says. "I saw that
inside the area or just outside, because of Rivelino's free kicks
that if it was shoulder to shoulder they would be very close to the
grass. If you remember the [England] game, [Alan] Mullery with Pele
inside the area, shoulder to shoulder and Pele was down. So I tried to
learn everything, and also the behavior when you make your decisions.
"Before every tournament I try to learn the language. Of course I know
Hungarian, my mother language (Timisoara was originally part of
Hungary), and Romanian. I speak some German, not the best. I learn
Spanish, French, Italian because at school I learn Latin so it's very
simple. I understand not 100%, but if I understand more than 50% when I
read sport magazines, that is enough."
He understood 100% about diet and exercise. In his 1995 guidebook for
officials, The Referee's Referee, Klein goes into rare detail about his
preparation. Everything is explained down to the last carbohydrate
portion, the last check of your pulse rate, the last 2,000-metre jog and
the last 50-metre sprint (backwards, this time, to simulate match
conditions). In the mid-1970s, when Prozone was but a glint in Sam
Allardyce's eye, Klein measured that he ran seven and a half miles in a
Before that Mexico World Cup he climbed mountains in Israel to help cope
with the altitude; before the Argentina World Cup eight years he trained
in a similar climate in Cape Town. In 1982, concerned that, at the age
of 48, his fitness was not what it should be - "the passing of time
started to put marks on my body" - he commissioned a physical trainer
called Jacob Almor, who prepared a bespoke program.
"It was based on gradually increasing my stamina and my physical
conditioning," wrote Klein in his 2010 autobiography, The Master of the
Whistle. "It included long-distance running on sandy beaches and on hard
surface streets of my town, Haifa. Long-distance endurance cycling and
short speed sprints on an athletic field as well as utilizing a gym,
where weight lifting and rubber-bands equipment helped my load endurance
and flexibility. We started slowly but then picked up the tempo. The
training was intense twice each day, mornings and evenings. It was
murder; very hard; plenty of suffering for a 48-year-old chap. I shed
nine pounds in four weeks and prepared my body for 120 minutes of a
physical stress load so as to allow me proper Refereeing stamina for
extra time, just in case."
Almor wanted no money, and said it would be an honor to help Klein. But
always the preparation was done off Klein's own bat and, when necessary,
out of his own pocket. In his day Referees had to pass the Cooper Test
running 2,600m in 12 minutes as part of their preparation. When he
later became chairman of the Referees' committee he immediately upped it
to 3,000 meters. "I told the Referees: you must be fitter than the
players, because there are 11 players on the field. You have to be in
the right position. A striker can miss a goal, but if a Referee misses
an incident it can be catastrophic. Some very, very famous Referees I
don't want to tell you their names made some bad decisions in World
Cup games. It was their last World Cup. I made mistakes in my country in
some games, I know, but I couldn't afford for 1970 to be my last World
Learning from those mistakes was a key part of his development. "The
first analysis is the most important thing after the game to learn,
and not to think you are the best in the world. When I met my wife she
told me: every time you can do better. And she is right. You can do
better in everything. When I made a mistake, then I try to avoid these
mistakes again. I had a semi-final in Tel Aviv when the ball was not
over the line but I was in a poor position and awarded a goal. Everybody
wanted to kill me.
"In Italy v Brazil in 1982 the last moment of the game - you can see
Dino Zoff on the line with the ball [after saving Oscar's header]. I had
an excellent view. You can see the Brazilian players wave their hands
that the ball is in, but you can see me wave that the ball is on the
In the last minute of his last World Cup game as Referee, Klein's
immaculate preparation had paid off one last time.
Abraham Klein arrived in Guadalajara in late May 1970. For the next two
weeks, he ignored the not inconsiderable temptations of a fascinating
city, and concentrated on his usual preparation. "I didn't leave my
hotel for two weeks, even for one day, to see the city," he says. "I
didn't see the city at all, only the hotel and the stadium. I want to
concentrate only on the game. I know that I cannot have a bad game. It
was very important for me because I know that, coming from a small
country, I have a big responsibility to the FIFA members who appointed
me to the game. Later I ask Sir Stanley Rous or Ken Aston
(the FIFA president and chairman of the Referees' committee,
respectively) why they chose me. I was a very young Referee with no
experience, only five international games. Ken Aston
always told me: we
trust you, you are honest, you make good impression and you are in good
Klein wasn't plucked out of thin air; he was picked because he could
cope with thin air. He had shown that during the Mexico Olympics in
1968, and FIFA knew he was fit enough to cope with Mexico's oppressive
heat. England's Terry Cooper would lose 12 pounds in the match. For
Klein it was squeaky-bum time in more ways than one. He still had the
problem of being perceived as the boy scout in 'Nam. The players of
Brazil and England did not know who he was. "In the first moment, they
look me: 'Who is standing here in the middle of the field?' They knew
nothing about me. I try from the first moment to respect the players; I
look their eyes. A little later during the game they understood that
they must also respect my Refereeing."
He controlled the game calmly from the first whistle. It flowed
gracefully from end to end, a festival of goodwill and mutual respect,
and is still one of the World Cup's iconic contests. "A Referee is
feeling during the game and after the game, how is he Refereeing, how is
his performance. If you make a mistake, you alone know immediately. You
feel it: you feel it because of the behavior of the player, you feel it
when you watch the coach. I'm not talking about [Jos้] Mourinho; he
always protests against the Referees. You have some coaches who you
respect. If they wave their hands once every 10 years you think about
it. But I feel very good in that Brazil/England game."
There were a couple of major incidents. Francis Lee was booked for a
late challenge on the goalkeeper Felix; then, just before half-time,
Pele fell in the area after a challenge from Alan Mullery. It would have
been so easy, too easy, for a young Referee to be seduced by the
greatest player in the world. Klein simply waved play on. He later
called it "the best decision of my life".
His performance received universal and divine haskamah. "It was a tough
game," said Pele, "but he always had total control of the action." In
his Story of the World Cup, Brian Glanville said the game was "admirably
Refereed by the obscure Israeli Referee Abraham Klein, an inspired
What was most striking was his apparently effortless authority. Unlike
some of the other great Referees, Collina and Jack Taylor in particular,
Klein did not have physical authority. He was 5ft 5in, a fraction over
10st. But he could impose himself in other ways. He was a big believer
in body language; a firm handshake, a perfectly upright stance, a
decisive signal or whistle; and eye contact, always eye contact. It soon
became apparent he did not suffer insolence or indiscipline. He was the
teacher you knew not to take liberties with. In a sense, his control was
supernatural. After that Brazil game, the Fort Scot Tribute said he
"showed he had the mysterious and decisive power to move into an
explosive situation and calm then down by the simple exertion of cool
He could impose himself physically, in his own little way. Before one
game, Klein was inspecting the footwear of a notorious troublemaker and
decided to squeeze the player's wrist. "I merely applied a little bit of
pressure, ever so slight, so he knew I was making a point: we'll have no
problems today, will we?" During an NASL game, when Johan Cruyff was
faffing, refusing to retreat 10 yards at a free-kick, Klein jolted him
into compliance with a zesty blow of the whistle only a couple of yards
from Cruyff's earlobe.
"You either have authority or not," says Klein. "I didn't need to give
red cards. I feel that I was able to control the game and the players
respect my decisions. I was very happy [that I did not have to give too
many red cards]. I felt that the most important thing in the game is
that the players respect me; if you gain their respect you can do what
you want in the game."
His control of games came in no small part from his amateur psychology.
Later, after reading the work of Daniel Goleman, he could give it his
own name: emotional intelligence. "Goleman wrote in his book one thing
which I think is very important: that to be successful in your life you
need to have emotional intelligence. You have it or not; you cannot
learn this; you cannot go to university for this. I know many people,
many famous Referees I do not want to give you names as it is not very
nice who did not finish high school, yet they were excellent Referees.
They have emotional intelligence, because they feel what other people
think, and can imagine what the other person is going to do. You have
many politicians and businessmen: they are not intelligent, but they are
very successful in what they do in their life.
"I think you can learn how to prove your authority, but you must have
your authority in the first place. You can see it with Jack Taylor. I
can't remember a player that has come close to him. He's a tall man,
like a rock, and when he looks at players they run away! He has it,
you know. I don't know what he is doing today. Give my best regards to
him, I love the gentleman.
"Jack Taylor was the best Referee I ever saw in my life. I learned a lot
from him. I remember when he Refereed the World Cup final in 1974 and
awarded the penalty kick against West Germany, and Franz Beckenbauer
just start to come close to him. I saw him stood like a rock with his
hands waving, and Beckenbauer - one of the biggest players in the world
left immediately, he ran away from there.
"This is the Referee for me. Even if he makes a mistake, the players
respect him, everybody respects him. This was [Pierluigi] Collina, this
was Jack Taylor, this was [Karoly] Palotai, this was Leo Horn. These
four Referees in my opinion were the greatest Referees."
The authority of Klein's performance in the England/Brazil game
impressed everybody. "Whenever people introduce me, even now, they say,
'Abraham Klein who Refereed England v Brazil', not Brazil v Italy or
Italy v Argentina." The pride Klein takes in his career is evident
throughout not just on a personal level, but because of what he
achieved on behalf of a small football country. After the game he paid a
local photographer $100 - "at the time it was big money for me" - for a
negative of him tossing the coin with Carlos Alberto and Bobby Moore. It
is one of hundreds of items of memorabilia on display in a little museum
at his home. It includes the match balls from England v Brazil in 1970
and Italy v Brazil in 1982; a series of cards on which he is
photographed with the likes of Alberto, Moore, Dino Zoff and Karl-Heinz
Rummenigge; rosettes; a silver plate signed by the Italy squad of 1982;
a watch with a dedication from Ken Aston ("you never let me down, not as
a Referee and not as a friend"; and even a toiletry bag from the
Scottish FA. Every memento tells a story.
He has a less welcome memory of the 1970 World Cup: Montezuma's revenge,
which meant he had to pull out after originally being awarded the
quarter-final between Italy and Mexico. "I was very, very, very upset
because I feel good after the Brazil game." His mood was improved when
Sir Stanley Rous told him: "It's not your last World Cup."
Klein was paid ฃ10 for Refereeing the game. In the future he was lucky
to get that; at the 1982 World Cup the Referees were paid only expenses.
Back then and this will be hard for younger readers to understand
people really did do it for the love of the game. He never gave up his
day job as a PE teacher. "Money for me was not important. To have a game
like England-Brazil or Italy-Brazil is much more than a million dollars.
Believe me, if I had a million dollars at that time and they asked me if
I want pay a million dollars to Referee Brazil v England, I would write
a cheque. It changed my life."
It not only changed his life; it came to define it. "I feel very good
with this, believe me. I live this game all my life, more than any other
A great and serious mistake...
The letter cut straight to the point. It was written in 1995 by Ken
Aston, the former chairman of the FIFA Referees' Committee, and
addressed to Klein.
|"Thanks you for your book
It is a great shame
that you made a great mistake in your Refereeing career. A very
serious mistake which you could never recover, and one which
everyone connected with the appointment of Referees at
international level remembered. And what you ask was this great
and serious mistake? Simply that you were an Israeli. I must
tell you that had I still been chairman of the FIFA Referees'
Committee in 1982, you would without any doubt have been
carrying the whistle and not the flag. I was happy to have been
able to support you throughout your career simply because you
deserve such support."
Politics cost Klein the World Cup final in 1978 (and perhaps 1982), a
place in the 1974 tournament, and permeated his career. There was, at
first, a mistrust of a Referee from a small league, although that kind
of prejudice was the least of Klein's worries. In 1981, when he went to
French Guiana as part of the FIFA Coca-Cola Project, he was originally
refused admission because Israelis were not allowed. When the rest of
the FIFA party said they would get on the first return flight unless
Klein was allowed in, the authorities relented. Far more damagingly, the
Munich massacre of 1972, in which members of the Israeli Olympic team
were taken hostage and killed, meant it was not safe for Klein to go to
West Germany for the World Cup two years later.
Israel did not become a member of UEFA until 1990, so there was no
chance for Klein to officiate major European league games. He does not
have any grievance and says that FIFA "were 100% correct with me". If he
couldn't quite access all areas, he at least got to go backstage. "No
Israeli was allowed to officiate in the east countries in Europe, but I
Refereed USSR twice. I also Refereed Cuba v Poland in the opening game
in the Montreal Olympics, all the communist countries I was not allowed
to enter. FIFA let me Referee these nations when they play abroad." He
also Refereed the Intercontinental Cup match between Nottingham Forest
and Nacional in 1980.
Klein became a whistle for hire (although 'hired' is a generous term
given the amount he was usually paid). He Refereed around 100 NASL games
in four seasons, and covered nine games at the Mini World Cup in 1972,
six as Referee - including a quarter-final, semi-final and the final
and three as linesman. This was a particularly impressive achievement;
shortly before the tournament Klein lacerated a muscle, had to put his
leg in a cast and was told to forget about participating.
There was also a seriously awkward World Cup qualifier between Italy and
England in 1976). There had been a climate of mutual mistrust for years,
which exploded in a nasty match at the US Bicentennial Tournament six
months earlier. With the stakes so much higher in Rome, FIFA called for
its top man. The Sunday Mirror described Klein as "the man with the most
unenviable job in football". He dismissed as "nonsense" reports that he
had been visited at his home by Italians, and said simply: "The game
doesn't worry me." It worried almost everyone else. A bit of the old
ultra violence seemed inevitable. "If all that Abraham Klein has to watch
this afternoon is tongues," wrote David Lacey on the day of the match in
the Guardian, "he will be fortunate."
Klein, on advice from Ken Aston, used the advantage sparingly. It meant more
fouls than usual 48- but a game that never got out of hand. "The game,
while hard, was Refereed firmly and sensibly by the Israeli Abraham
who was quick to clamp down on anything that might provoke
retaliation," said Lacey in this paper. The Mirror said he ruled "with
an iron hand". Klein's excellence gave a lie to the old adage to the
Referee should be invisible. You couldn't fail to notice that you hadn't
Instead of becoming notorious, the match is now remembered for a classic
goal from Roberto Bettega in Italy's 2-0 win. After the game, he
received another letter from Ken Aston:
|19 November 1976
My dear Abraham,
Bravo, well done. Mrs. Aston said to me, 'Abraham didn't let you
down', and she knows how important it is to me. The fact that
England lost does not perturb me in the least; it might be said
that Italy were the better team, and certainly they were, but
the best team was the third team of match officials. Please pass
on to your two colleagues my congratulation
Klein covered so many great games around the world. But he never
Refereed a World Cup final.
A Real Hero...
The English tabloids have not always been known for their support of
foreign Referees. The hounding of Urs Meier after Euro 2004 was a
disgrace, while Tom Henning ุvreb๘ was openly ridiculed when he made a
mess of the 2009 Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and
Chelsea. Thirty-one years earlier, the tabloids had only kind words for
Klein. Particularly the Daily Mirror. "The first authentic hero of the
1978 World Cup has emerged at last and it is not a pampered, overpaid
professional footballer," wrote Frank McGhee under the headline 'Abraham
restores our faith'. "He is Abraham Klein of Israel."
Klein was praised worldwide for his immaculate performance in the group
game between Italy and the hosts Argentina. With both teams having
qualified for the second phase, it might have seemed like a nice easy
dead rubber. It didn't quite pan out that way. Klein says it was the
most difficult game of his career.
At the time Argentina was run by a military junta, and the sense
persisted that anybody else winning the World Cup was simply not an
option. After they beat Holland in the final, one of the Dutch players
said that his side would not have got out of the stadium alive had they
won. He was only half joking. You can't overestimate how intimidating it
was. In Argentina's first two games, 2-1 victories over Hungary and
France, the Referees had caved in to the relentless pressure of 77,000
Hungary had two players sent off; France conceded a dodgy penalty and
didn't get a much clearer penalty of their own. "You can ask Platini
what he thinks about that game," says Klein. "You can ask Hungary for
their opinion about that game."
Argentina needed to beat Italy to stay in Buenos Aires for the second
group stage. In his History of the World Cup, Cris Freddi said that
Argentina's "excesses were kept in check by the best Referee in the
world". Italy won 1-0. "The crowd were very upset. I had no problem with
the players; they respect me. The crowd, you know, they pay and when
they pay they can tell you whatever they think about you and your
Klein turned down a couple of penalty appeals just before the break,
which led to vicious abuse either side of half-time. This time his hands
were not in his pockets. He strode off the pitch knowing he had made the
right decisions, a proud monument of conviction and moral courage. "When
I'm on the pitch, only two things are important to me: being fair to
both teams and making my decisions bravely," he told Simon Kuper in
Ajax, The Dutch, The War. "I think all Referees are fair, but not all of
them are brave, probably."
He looked the beast in the eye and did not blink. "There was nothing
more impressive in this World Cup," wrote Brian Glanville, "than the way
he stood between his linesmen at half-time in the Argentina-Italy game,
scorning the banshee whistling of the incensed crowd."
This is not to say Klein was entirely unaffected by the abuse. He is
human and he needs not to be hated. "The feeling is very bad," he says
of his reaction at half-time. To avert a similar reception, he decided
to delay his return on to the field. Instead of leading the players out,
he let the Argentina players go first; his return was lost in the hero
worship. It was an ingenious and highly successful maneuver.
"I felt stronger in the second half because I know all my decisions were
correct. I feel very good with this. Even after the game, they told me,
'don't go out, the crowd is waiting for you'. I told them, 'I'm not
afraid'. I was never afraid in my career. I know that the crowd will do
nothing after the game. I was not afraid to do what a Referee must do in
the game. There was no problem."
He keeps a scrapbook full of praise for his performance:
|'Diesmal kein Heimschiedsrichter' ("No home-favoring ref
"Abraham Klein from Israel, who was unwaveringly insistent on
applying the laws as they were written - with the resultant hail
of abuse from the home country, when they lost, and widespread
acclaim in Europe. Ironically, his brave, conspicuous
performance robbed Klein of his rightful claim to the final."
(From The Argentina Story by David Miller)
'Il miglior fischietto ่ Klein' ("The best Referee is Klein")
"I hope the brave, little Israeli ref, Abraham Klein, gets the
final." (Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times)
'Ganz gross, Herr Klein!' ("Fabulous, Mr Klein!")
The comments were echoed in the Guardian. "Italy produced a marvelously
balanced and co-ordinated performance to beat Argentina," wrote David
Lacey, "and much of the credit for creating the circumstances in which
they were allowed to do so must go to Abraham Klein, of Israel, whose
firm, fair Refereeing was precisely what the situation demanded."
In the Mirror, Frank McGhee said "he didn't make a single wrong decision
in the whole 90 minutes of a marvelous match
My most abiding memory
of the match is the way both teams queued up at the end to shake hands
with Klein. They knew, we knew, he had done most to make it a match to
After another excellent performance in the second group stage match
between of all teams - Austria and West Germany, he seemed a certainty
for the final. Pele thought it; Jack Taylor thought it; even educated
fleas thought it. But it went to the Italian Sergio Gonella reportedly
on the casting vote of another Italian, Dr Artemio Franchi, the chairman
of the Referees' committee. Klein's consolation prize was the
third-place play-off between Brazil and Italy. Clive Thomas, the
Welshman who also referred at the tournament, called the decision an
"utter disgrace". Cris Freddi also described it as "disgraceful" in his
World Cup history.
"To tell you the truth I was very disappointed," Klein says. "I think at
that time I was fit to Referee the final. But only one man can Referee
the final, and if I look back I am still happy with what I had in my
life, in my Refereeing life." Klein is certain he would have had no
problem being impartial, despite his affection for Apeldoorn.
Gonella lost control of the match even before it started, with the
kick-off delayed by over 10 minutes by Argentinean gamesmanship. First
they came on to the field late; then they complained about the bandage
on Rene van de Kerkhof's arm, even though he had been wearing it all
tournament. The match was a nasty affair. Argentina did what they had
been doing most of the tournament; Holland showed us why Netherlands is
all but an anagram of Neanderthals.
There are a couple of theories for Klein's rejection. One is that
Argentina protested about his links with Holland. It sounds good, but at
that stage nobody knew of his year in Apeldoorn. "Nobody knew because
nobody asked me," he says. "Nobody at the Argentinean government or FIFA
knows about it, so this cannot be true."
More likely is that he was punished for his performance in the Italy
game; that Argentina bullied FIFA into picking another Referee. "Maybe
this was the reason," he says. Either way, there is a startling lack of
bitterness. "Some of the journalists told that some of the members of
the Referees' committee wanted me, but I cannot tell you one wrong about
the Referees' committee or the FIFA president. They support me
throughout my career. You cannot find many Referees from small countries
who had the games that I had. I Refereed Brazil seven times, Italy seven
times. They gave me the best games in the world. Maybe Gonella was
better than me."
The Bell Rings...
Klein knew about control. For over a decade, he had controlled the best
players in the world. He thought he knew about control. He was wrong.
"It is the one time I lost control," he said. He was sat in a hotel in
Spain, preparing for the World Cup. He had no idea where his son was, or
whether he was alive.
After 1978, Klein was due a quiet, trouble-free World Cup. Some chance.
First came yet more politics. With Kuwait and Algeria having qualified,
Arab TV stations threatened to boycott the World Cup if an Israeli was
allowed to Referee. On 15 March, when the Referees list was to be
announced, Klein paced around the room like a teenager waiting for a
call from the one they mistakenly thought was The One.
"I kept fiddling and checking my phone," he recalled in Master of the
Whistle. "Is my line connected? Do I have a dial tone? As time passed by
I have gotten more nervous, more morose. I was in agony and felt I was
going crazy." A few hours later came relief: Klein's candidacy had been
unanimously approved by FIFA's Referees committee, who had reached a
compromise: his name would be erased from the screen during broadcasts
to Arab countries.
After more bureaucracy the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports
originally rejected his application for leave Klein prepared to depart
for Spain. Then things took a darker twist. Palestinian terrorists shot
Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador for England, in the head. He was in
a coma for three months. Retaliation was inevitable. Klein's first born,
Amit, was on active duty, but he reasoned with himself that a new
recruit would not be in the firing line.
He landed in Spain and settled in for a few days. Then the phone rang on
6 June; his wife told him that the war was on in Lebanon, and that Amit
was on standby. "Suddenly I went through a range of emotions that I
never felt before; a worry mixed with fear," he wrote in Master of the
Whistle. "My body got numb and a cold sweat started to cover me head to
toe. All I could do was to sit on my bed, feel sorry for Amit and for
myself. And then uncontrollable tears started to come down my cheeks.
For the first time in my life I was not in control; I lost it and it was
a feeling I could not bear."
The next day Klein found out that his son was in combat in the hot spot
of Damour. He requested a meeting with Dr Franchi, the chairman of the
Referees' committee, and told he was in no fit state to Referee a game.
"'Are you sure about this?', he asked. 'Yes I am 100% sure. My son is in
combat in Lebanon. My family has not heard from him. We have sign, no
word, whether he is alive. I am extremely worried about him and his
whereabouts and therefore I do not feel like I am in the proper state of
mind to Referee a World Cup game.'"
Klein spent the first round as either linesman or fourth official. For
nearly two weeks he had no word of his son. On 18 June he ran the line
in Italy v Peru. "I did my job while my mind was floating. I felt like I
was enclosed in some space bubble. Mostly my thoughts were with Amit."
That evening he returned to his hotel to find a letter waiting for him
|Shalom... Dear Dad,
Today is Friday and as you know it happens to be my birthday. I
am celebrating it here in far away Lebanon. Everybody got
recruited and called in. The Core of Engineers has been
operating on the Litani for three weeks. Sadly a lot of guys
that I knew got either killed or seriously wounded and my heart
is broken. I am already waiting impatiently to see a World Cup
game Refereed by you (I wish to see you Referee many games as
well as the final). Here, everybody is collecting newspaper
clips about the games and passes them on to me. Much success! We
are all crossing our fingers for your success.
"I could not stop my tears," said Klein. "It is difficult to explain to
someone the emotions that father goes through when reading a letter from
his son in combat. What a difference a sign of life in the form of a
small letter can make on a parent." Later he heard his son's voice for
the first time since arriving in Spain. "When the phone rang in my hotel
room and I heard Amit's voice on the other side I thought I was
hallucinating: how the heck he has managed to reach me on the phone in
the middle of a war to communicate with me? It was one of the most
exciting phone conversations that I had ever had in my life. He was not
on the front combat lines as I had assumed but his unit had done a
considerable mileage on foot in search of the hidden enemy."
His son implored Klein to return to Refereeing. Amit's Klein would go on
to become an international Referee himself, and today he is a UEFA
observer. His old man wasn't quite finished yet. He had been assigned to
Brazil v Italy in the second stage. The magnificent Brazilians needed a
draw to reach the semi-finals; an unconvincing Italy needed to win.
Klein was peculiarly unexcited. He thought Brazil would win easily. He
told his two linesman that "it will be a game that nobody will remember
in a few months".
"How wrong was I?" he reflects. He never Refereed a World Cup final, but
perhaps the greatest game in World Cup history is a decent alternative.
When Paolo Rossi scored his second goal to put Italy 2-1 up after 25
minutes, Klein says "the bell rang" in his head. "I
realized that I was
part of history in the making."
The heat and end-to-end nature of the game would have been too much for
most 48-year-olds, but Klein's fitness served him well. With the score
1-1, Brazil appealed for a penalty when Claudio Gentile pulled Zico's
shirt so hard that he almost ripped it off. The linesman had flagged a
second earlier for offside, however. "If the linesman's flag would not
have been raised to indicate an offside call I would have whistled
without a hesitation for a penalty and given Gentile a second yellow
card. However, Zico had a hard time accepting my decision. He was
furious with me and continued to show me again and again the great tear
in his shirt. 'So go change your shirt' I told him in return."
Italy went on to win an epic match 3-2, despite a furious late assault
from Brazil that included Zoff's save on the line from Oscar. "It was an
invasion, like in Normandy, with all the players," he remembers. Again
he seemed a likely candidate for the final, but FIFA went for Arnaldo
Coelho. "The obvious choice was Abraham Klein," said Brian Glanville in
his Story of the World Cup. "But the Referees' Committee, pleased with
itself and as incompetent as ever, compromised pathetically by assigning
the replay." Klein was appointed linesman for the first
"In 82, the best Referee of the tournament was Coelho, and I was very
happy that I was on the line," he says. "I was the first man to
congratulate him and I told him I was very happy I was with him." Had
there been a replay, Klein would have Refereed the World Cup final at
the age of 48. Italy won 3-1.
So now then...
Klein retired in 1984, at the age of 50. He would later be chairman of
the Referees committee in Israel, and a FIFA Referees instructor. He
also Refereed at the Special Olympics in 1995 and 1999. Now 77, he has
the chance to experience the globe, not just color it in on a map, and
to enjoy the friendships fostered through football. "It's unbelievable,"
he says. "What Refereeing has done for me is not only about the games,
and not only that I saw the world because when I was a Referee I
travelled around the world but I didn't see nothing from the world.
Today if I land anywhere in the world somebody is waiting for me. It's a
good feeling, and when they come to Israel I do the same, believe me."
He goes everywhere with his wife Bracha. "I have a wonderful wife,
believe me. She accompanies me around the world." Last year they went on
a cruise from Rome, first stopping off at the same hotel that Klein had
stayed in before the Poland game in 1965. "In reception there was a man,
not old but maybe 60. I give him my passport He look my passport, he
look my passport, he look my face. '82, Italia-Brasil!' He look me. I
told him, 'Yes, Italia-Brazil'. He give me my key. It was a pre-paid
room. We get the lift and go to our room. It was a suite, an
unbelievable suite. I told my wife, we go back to the luggage, it was a
mistake. I did not pay for a suite, I pay for an ordinary room. I go
back, I told him, 'We are very sorry, I pay for another room'. 'Nonononono,
it is our great pleasure that you stay in our hotel'. Then he sent to
our room wine and chocolate. Unbelievable."
Klein still lives in Haifa, close to his daughter and his
granddaughters. "I am living in an apartment hotel, very close to the
sea. I feel the winter air." He still does around three hours' exercise
a day: swimming, gym work or just walking along the bench. Even now, as
he approaches his ninth decade on earth, he sticks to his fighting
weight. "I am very fit today. I am 65 kilos (just over 10st), the same
as when I Refereed England v Brazil. When I go on a cruise I put on two
or three kilos because they feed you 24 hours a day, but when I get home
I work it off. I am a very rich man. You know why? I don't need to buy
any clothes! Not the same shoes but the same clothes
Then there are the leisure pursuits for which there was so little time
during his career. "I tell you I am very busy. I am busy with my
training, with my family, with reading books, going to concerts or the
opera, meeting friends. I love sport, I play tennis I watch sport every
day, NBA, English football. I am a happy man I can tell you, very happy.
And if I am looking back, I am very happy with my career. Very, very
There is no arrogance, just pride and still, perhaps, a hint of
incredulity at this unbelievable life. He does not need the validation
of being called the best Referee of all time. He gets validation every
time he looks in his museum, or every time he flies to a different part
of the world and is introduced as the man who Refereed England v Brazil
in 1970. It's enough to say that Klein was one of the greatest Referees
of all time. And that he has lived a life like no other.
Thanks to... Abraham Klein, Dan Friedman and Cris Freddi.