The whistleblower: public enemy No 1

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The Independent Online

Urs Meier's ambitions for Euro 2004 were modest. Speaking before the start of the competition, he said: "The target for me is always the same in a tournament such as this one - to make no mistakes, then go home with your head high."

Urs Meier's ambitions for Euro 2004 were modest. Speaking before the start of the competition, he said: "The target for me is always the same in a tournament such as this one - to make no mistakes, then go home with your head high."

When he wakes this morning, the Swiss referee and provincial vacuum cleaner salesman may be grateful for his head to merely stop spinning as he is pursued by a pack bent on vengeance ranging from the massed ranks of Britain's popular press to a coven of Romanian witches.

The father-of-two, whose interests include wine and athletics, achieved his new status as the scapegoat for a nation's footballing grief at precisely 9.34pm on Thursday.

As England's Sol Campbell wheeled away in celebration after seemingly securing his team a place in the semi-finals with a 90th minute goal against Portugal, Mr Meier blew his whistle to disallow the goal for a foul on the goalkeeper.

Within 45 minutes England had lost on penalties. Yesterday the man whose "mistake" deprived the country of its apparent destiny as the champions of Europe received the first instalment of that special brand of vitriol reserved only for murderers, despots and referees.

The popular press lambasted Mr Meier, 45, with headlines such as "Reffing hell" and "Robbed by a reffin' half-wit".

Another newspaper columnist, hinting darkly at the cowardice of "Old Europe", wrote: "Shame on the Swiss referee, the Emmenthal-eating appease-ment monkey who ruined the lives of millions of honest yeo-men bearing their simple flag."

And that will not be the end of it. The Independent has learnt that one newspaper dispatched reporters to Mr Meier's home town within minutes of the final whistle with a mission to cover his house in a giant England flag.

His personal website, which invites fans to e-mail messages about his on-pitch performance, was receiving so much traffic yesterday that it ground to a halt for several hours while one supermarket with an eye for PR stunts offered all Swiss nationals in Britain a free eye test.

For a match official who normally oversees games in the genteel Swiss first division when not managing his domestic appliance retail business in the quiet town of Würenlos, such opprobrium will come as a shock.

Uefa said yesterday that the referee would not be giving any interviews about the England game and dismissed any suggestion that his performance should be reviewed.

But Mr Meier, whose highlighted hair and matching dyed-blond beard had already earned him sly praise as the tournament's best-groomed referee, is used to more positive publicity.

His website points out that he was recently voted the world's third-best referee and lists details of his "modern and rigorous" fitness regime.

In stark contrast to their British counterparts, Swiss newspapers were full of praise for Mr Meier's performance. The national daily, Blick, wrote: "What a game, what a drama. The cool Brits against the hot-blooded Portuguese. And the impartial Swiss referee was the cherry on the cake."

Another paper, 20min, added: "Ref Meier gave a good performance. His decision not to allow Campbell's head was correct. But on the island, they'll look at it differently."

Indeed, the reaction on the island could not have been more different. Even among Mr Meier's refereeing brethren in Britain yesterday, sympathy was qualified by a frank insistence that he had got it wrong. Arthur Smith, general secretary of the Referees' Association and a former FA Cup final referee, said: "I could not see anything wrong with the goal. I don't think his performance was of the highest standard.''

But if Mr Meier is hoping the pasting he is receiving in Britain will eventually subside, he should think of the naked hatred with which he is still considered in Romania.

A year ago the Romanians failed to qualify for Euro 2004 when they conceded a goal during five minutes of injury time which Mr Meier added on for little apparent reason.

The result was a ferocious onslaught of 14,000 e-mails to his website, a poster in a newspaper inviting readers to spit on his face and a curse by Romanian witches to turn him lame and cause "pain in his soul".

Last night, in an apparent gesture of international unity against the Swiss referee, the same witches offered to renew their hex. Aurelia Xan, based in the city of Craiova, said: "We can put a curse on him if any English fan wants us to because we know what it's like. We have felt this same pain."

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