The (nice) men in black: Referees are the most vilified men on the planet but a new film makes them seem almost human

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Movie heroes come in many shapes and forms. In the last hundred years, we've had pictures about cowboys, gladiators, gangsters, spies... and even journalists. What world cinema hasn't seen – at least until now – is a feature film about football referees.

The "men in black" have been out in numbers for the Locarno Festival premiere of the new documentary Kill the Referee by the Belgian director Yves Hinant. This is the latest addition to the fast-growing genre of football movies with art-house pretensions. It follows in the wake of Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon's beautiful but impenetrable Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (more art installation than Match of the Day) and Emir Kusturica's wonderfully vibrant and eccentric Maradona (denied a theatrical release in the UK but now finally about to appear on DVD).

Unlike such movies, Kill the Referee isn't a celebration of flawed sporting genius. It's more of a plea on behalf of flawed officialdom. The film is all about the tribulations of the men with the whistles at last year's UEFA European Championship.

Kill the Referee has its David Lynch-like elements. The refs are all miked up. The most surreal moments come during their frenzied discussions with players and with their assistants. The buzz and hissing on the recording only adds to the disorienting effect as they tell off or cajole players and confer with fellow officials.

Off duty, before the premiere of Kill the Referee, the referees seem remarkably balanced and even genial individuals. The lean, balding figure of Pierluigi Collina, "the best in the world, a perfect referee with personality and quality" as Jose Mourinho once called him, could be seen, sitting happily eating lunch. He has long since retired, but still features in the film. He was offering journalists Yoda-like nuggets of wisdom about the merits of goal-line technology. Wandering around town, taking pictures, was Roberto Rosetti, the Italian ref who officiated at the Euro 2008 final. Pottering about with his family was Englishman Howard Webb. It was clearly a novelty for all these referees to feel so appreciated. Swedish ref Peter Frojdfeldt (who officiated at the England vs Croatia match in 2007 in which England crashed out of qualification for Euro 2008) confided that he is not used to the applause that greeted the assembled refs at the end of their Locarno press conference. "Often, when we leave the pitch, they boo us," he told me, just a little mournfully.

The film was made with UEFA's blessing. Yvan Cornu, UEFA's head of refereeing, had long been keen on the idea of a movie that would "offer a humanist vision of the men in black." That wasn't exactly Hinant's intention. "I am not making movies to be loved by people," the Belgian director insists. He only agreed to make the documentary on the understanding that he would have full access behind-the-scenes and on the pitch to his subjects. UEFA president Michel Platini eventually agreed to this, but only with reluctance. The refs and the UEFA bosses were clearly terrified about being set up by the film-makers. Even so, once they had actually seen the film, they were happy enough with how they were portrayed. They repeat the same mantra again and again, on screen and off. They're human beings with families. They're not gods. They make mistakes. They want to be understood.

For all their pleading, the perception still lingers that refs are either failed players or hen-pecked husbands, taking out the frustrations of their domestic lives by turning into red-card wielding martinets on Saturday afternoons. Widespread suspicion remains about the accuracy of their eyesight and their tendency toward self-abuse. They are nobody's idea of movie heroes.

The fascination of Kill the Referee is that it's an unmediated view of refs. We see and hear them before matches, when many of them look so nervous that you think they're about to throw up; we see them on the pitch, during half-time and when they're being debriefed by UEFA officials. We know they are aware that their every decision is being pored over around the world and that an error can change their lives. There is nothing contrived about the refs' behaviour. They've got more on their minds than trying to look good for the film-makers. "I was there [at Euro 2008] for four weeks. The first week, I wasn't used to the camera. I'd say: it's the camera, the camera again," Frojdfeldt recalls. "For the last three weeks, you didn't recognise it."

The film-makers reveal the contradictions in top referees' professional lives. These are men not without their vanities. They like to be centre stage. During Euro 2008, they were all vying to be put in charge of the final. At the same time, they realise that if they're conspicuous, it will inevitably mean that they are having a bad match.

There is a tension at the heart of Kill the Referee. UEFA wanted a documentary that would perform what Roberto Rosetti calls "a sympathy operation" on referees. The film-makers' agenda was more complex. They were looking for colour and incident.

That's why Webb was so pivotal to the film. When Webb gave a penalty against Poland in the dying minutes of a Euro 2008 group match against Austria, the Poles reacted with fury. "Fucking disgrace... English referee!" was the response from the Polish officials. The Polish Prime Minister even suggested that he would like to kill Webb. The incident provided the documentary with the narrative spark it needed. All of a sudden, this was an embroiled human story.

Hinant says that the Yorkshireman was his favourite character among the Euro 2008 refs and likens him to someone in a Ken Loach movie. "He's a great guy and he's a tough guy."

You can see why he warmed to Webb. The former police officer is a personable and articulate whistleblower with a very British understatement and just a hint of Brian Glover about him. He was very open. Unlike Rosetti, he was prepared to be filmed at even the most fraught moments. It helped, too, that Webb's father was such a compelling screen figure: a bluntly spoken Yorkshireman who is immensely proud of his son and was perplexed by the brickbats that came Howard's way in the wake of that fateful Poland match.

"It was an interesting experience," Webb tells me of his rollercoaster ride at Euro 2008. "We did have that incident in the Poland game that obviously impacted on my family as well due to the reaction of some people."

It takes a moment to realise that he is referring to a period in which the entire Polish nation, from emigres in the UK to top politicians in Warsaw, seemed ready to lynch him. "The overriding memory of Euro 2008 is of a positive experience – a somewhat challenging one, I guess, but a positive one overall."

Ask Webb how he reacts when he has nearly 60,000 people chanting that he's not fit to referee – as happened at the Emirates last December when Arsenal were playing Liverpool and he mysteriously sent off Arsenal's then player Emmanuel Adebayor – and he suggests it's all in the line of duty. "You learn to accept that sometimes that will happen... I know that the abuse I get is not personal. The comments are directed at my position as a referee. Quite often that abuse is totally unfounded. It's about a decision that might be a totally correct one."

Webb acknowledges that his background as a policeman has helped him. "If you look at the number of referees who come from policing backgrounds or teaching backgrounds, they're the type of occupations where you are interacting with people all the time. In a different sphere, of course, the way that people behave on the field of play is not dissimilar to the way someone might behave on a Saturday night when tensions are running high. As a policeman or a referee, you have to very quickly analyse what is happening and what you are going to do about it. You have to stay calm under pressure."

Webb's remarks are instructive. The referees at the film's premiere often sounded like Zen philosophers as they pondered their profession. Peter Frojdfeldt told me that before the England vs Croatia game in 2007, he blocked the importance of the match out of his mind. "If you go in thinking it [the match] is worth a lot of money to the FA, you'd be crazy. I have a mental preparation. I didn't write in my book that it was England against Croatia. It was a white team against a blue team... it's just 11 against 11."

The thoughtful Collina, meanwhile, responded indignantly when asked why anyone would want to be a referee, given all the abuse they endure. He pointed out that between the ages of 17 and 21, the job had helped him to mature. He was officiating at matches with players older than he was. On the football field, he wasn't following orders from teachers or parents. "I was making decisions on my own. That helped me to grow up."

Kill the Referee certainly shows "the real people behind the referee that supporters see for 90 minutes on the field," as Webb puts it. The irony about the film is that its success in portraying referees in a complex and very human light is unlikely to make a difference in the way they're perceived. After all, blaming the ref is an integral part of the football-going experience. Every pantomime needs a villain.

UEFA's hopes that the media will see Kill the Referee and communicate the essential decency of Europe's top refs to readers and viewers seem misplaced. Referees certainly don't deserve death threats and harassment from fanatical supporters. Nonetheless, when they're officiating, their off-field personalities won't be on anyone's mind. All the fans care about is the decisions they make. That's why they're doomed never to be loved. Thanks to Hinant's documentary, they may now be feted at the occasional film festival, but once they're back out on the pitch, old hostilities with the fans and managers will soon be resumed.

'Kill the Referee' premiered at the Locarno Film Festival. Emir Kusturica's 'Maradona' is released next month on DVD by Optimum Home Entertainment