Threats show how football can be a matter of life and death

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The Independent Online

To some it was simply a strict but fair interpretation of the rule that allows referees to protect goalkeepers from aerial challenges. To others, carried away by the prospect of England coming within two victories of a first football tournament win in 38 years, it appears to have been a life-or-death decision.

To some it was simply a strict but fair interpretation of the rule that allows referees to protect goalkeepers from aerial challenges. To others, carried away by the prospect of England coming within two victories of a first football tournament win in 38 years, it appears to have been a life-or-death decision.

The man at the centre of the controversy, the 45-year-old Swiss referee Urs Meier, revealed yesterday the full extent of a week-long onslaught after being made scapegoat for the national team's deficiencies.

Mr Meier, whose services were not required for the Euro 2004 semi-finals, broke his silence to reveal he had received telephone and e-mail death threats that were taken seriously enough for the police to offer him protection.

Asked in an interview on BBC Radio 4's PM if he had received death threats, he said: "Fans have made mail and the phone calls and so on ..."

After a week in which he has received the sort of press normally reserved for serial killers, Mr Meier blamed sections of the media for "overheating" fans in a "dangerous" way. The morning after the match, Mr Meier woke up to find himself being lambasted with headlines such as "Reffing hell" and "Robbed by a reffin' half-wit". Details of an alleged extra-marital affair with a female referee soon followed and The Sun carpeted a playing field next to Mr Meier's shop with a giant flag of St George. His personal website - used to promote his refereeing and his business in household appliances - crashed under the weight of vitriol.

He said: "I feel very sad about this reaction of the tabloid press, especially after a right decision. A reaction like this after a football game is never the right way."

Asked to comment on the suggestion that some of the English press would see their criticism as a harmless joke, he replied: "To me it's not a joke. A lot of English supporters and fans they are heated over and it's really dangerous."

In the recent history of footballing hate figures, Mr Meier now rates alongside David Beckham, who was strung up in effigy after his sending-off during England's 1998 World Cup exit and Sol Campbell, who received death threats when he moved from Spurs to their north London rivals Arsenal.

It was Campbell who was denied a 90th-minute headed "goal" that would have given England a 2-1 victory over hosts Portugal in front of 65,000 fans at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz last Wednesday. The decision not to allow the goal forced the game into 30 minutes extra-time followed by an agonising defeat for England on penalties.

Mr Meier, rated the third best referee in the world before the tournament started, insisted that the infringement on Portugal's goalkeeper, Ricardo, was by both John Terry and Campbell. Speaking from Switzerland, he said: "The whole world was seeing this decision was correct. It was foul play from Campbell. It was foul play from Terry ... It was clearly foul play."

Yesterday's interview forms part of a public relations counter-attack by Mr Meier, who has been hardened in the past by similar opprobrium from the Romanians who blamed him for playing too much extra time in a crucial Euro 2004 qualifying match.

Today he will give an interview to the Swiss radio station, Radio Energy, which has swung public opinion his way at home. Swiss newspapers and radio stations have joined in a counter-attack against Mr Meier's chief tormentor, The Sun.

The campaign was started by Radio Energy, which urged listeners to bombard the paper with complaints and broadcast its telephone number. Roman Kilchsperger, a DJ, said: "I didn't know there were so many England-haters here. Many write in with things like "Fuck the teapot" and "Roman. Stick it to them.".

Mr Kilchsperger, acknowledged the career benefits to demonising The Sun but insisted he was a fan of the English. "I like them. I even supported them in Euro 2004," he said.

Towards the end of the interview, it appeared that Mr Meier was offering some appeasement to his English critics over the penalty shoot-out by admitting that the penalty spot that David Beckham appeared to blame after shooting high over the bar was "not good".

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