Football: Fat man casts a shadow

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The Independent Online
REPORTS that Eric Cantona indiscreetly challenged a notion of unimpeachable rectitude when speaking about referees last week on French television stirs a few memories.

In Athens, just before the 1971 European Cup final at Wembley between the Greek club Panathinaikos and Ajax, I was prevailed upon to meet a man who bore a striking resemblance to a character made famous by Sydney Greenstreet in that he was a noxious, toad-like presence.

It had just been announced that Jack Taylor from Wolverhampton would referee the match instead of the Herefordshire official, Jim Finney, who had been seriously injured in a car crash that almost took his life. 'Tell me,' the fat man said, 'this Taylor, what is he like?'

Not yet appreciating the point of this inquiry, I gave Taylor full credit for the firmness and courage he would further demonstrate when awarding the Netherlands a penalty in the opening minutes of the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany. 'Jack is a good referee,' I said, 'one of the best.'

The fat man's sigh was audible. 'You don't understand,' he said. 'This Taylor, is he honest?' Taken aback by the implication (there was nothing to connect the fat man with Panathinaikos) and coming upon the reason for our conversation, I spoke sharply. 'British referees aren't all as good as they like to think but there has never been anything to suggest corruption.' 'Perhaps it is in your mind to report this conversation,' the fat man said. 'But who will believe you? Forget it.'

Some time later I told the story to Leo Horn, a textile merchant from Amsterdam who made much of the reputation he gained as a referee. 'These things do not surprise me,' he said. Once, Horn claimed, when in Italy to referee a European cup tie, he was telephoned by an official of the home club who apologised for not arranging a gift which usually amounts to no more than a small memento. 'I was given an address and told to select some expensive suiting,' he said. 'Of course I declined, and took great satisfaction from telling those people that I had a warehouse full of cloth back in Amsterdam.'

After retiring as a referee, Horn was put in charge of the officials appointed to a European tie in his homeland. He was in the dressing-room when a representative of the visiting team handed over expensive watches to the referee and linesmen. 'A few minutes afterwards, Sir Stanley Rous appeared,' Horn said. 'He asked for the watches, placed them in an inside pocket and said they would be returned if he was satisfied.'

As any number of people sensed at the time, there was something suspicious going on when Leeds United were defeated 1-0 by Milan in the 1973 European Cup-Winners' Cup final in Salonika. Those suspicions were confirmed when the Greek referee was suspended a few days after the game.

You will not come across many stories like that. However, there have always been rumours. In order to dispel those that grew up in Belgrade before the 1973 European Cup final between Ajax and Juventus, the officials came under close surveillance from the moment they arrived. 'Of course, if we suspected dishonesty the referee would not have been appointed,' a Fifa official said at the time. 'But we do not want anybody approaching them.'

By remarking on these things you can raise a problem that isn't there, although it is true to say that there are people prepared to go along with the idea of corruption in sport. Going back to that experience in Athens, I often wonder what the fat man and his friends had in mind. Perhaps they only wanted to be sure that Jack Taylor would give them a fair crack of the whip. On the other hand . . .

At the time Panathinaikos were coached by Ferenc Puskas. When I described the fat man he shrugged. Never seen him, never heard of him. I saw him again, a few days before the match, slouched over a roulette wheel in a London casino. He smiled. 'Hard but honest,' he said, which, more or less, is how I had described Taylor when interviewed by a Greek paper.