Man in middle of mayhem

Andrew Longmore talks to the official at the centre of one of football's most notorious incidents; Battle of Santiago revisited: Retired referee recalls the brawl which World Cup history will never forget
Click to follow
The Independent Online
KEN ASTON gets up from his chair, gingerly because he is 83 and his back plays him up a bit, and heads indoors. "Just going to get a ball and a goalline," he says. This is clearly a party piece. Moments later, he emerges from the house clutching a brand new football and a piece of A4-sized white paper. He puts the ball down on the tiny patch of immaculately kept lawn and tucks the piece of paper under one side, not touching the ball, but within the full circumference of it.

"Now," he says. "Goal or no goal?" "Goal," I say because that's what I'm supposed to say. "Wrong," he replies, anticipating my mistake. "The complete circumference of the ball has to be over the line." Ergo, which is where the conversation began, the 1966 World Cup rightly belonged to West Germany not to Geoff Hurst's England. "Nothing I've seen since has persuaded me that was a goal. The Russian linesman has told me he didn't think it was a goal either."

Like all referees, Aston defies you to disagree, even 35 years after his last match, the 1963 Cup final. Life imitates refereeing. There are no shades of grey. Aston's confident opinions made him a respected figure of authority in his time and make him an acute observer of the game now. His conversation hovers between anecdote and tutorial. How do you know when a player dives? He has mud on his hands not his knees. When do you give a penalty? When you know it's a penalty, not when you think it is.

"I'll tell you a story," he says. "The relevance of it will become clear later." And off he goes. The story is about a Russian Jew, who was reprieved from certain death in the Nazi concentration camps because he was needed to referee the guards' matches. He was so grateful to football for saving his life that, after the Second World War, he became a fully qualified referee and a substantial benefactor to referee's causes. His one and only appearance in the World Cup, granted more as a reward than through ability, was as a linesman in the Battle of Santiago, Chile v Italy in the national stadium in 1962, the ugliest game in World Cup history.

Though the resonances of that bitter afternoon have died away long ago and two of the chief protagonists - Leonel Sanchez and Mario David - even became firm friends, no meeting of the two countries will entirely dissipate the memories. While Italy meet Chile in Bordeaux on Thursday, Aston will be in the United States, hosting a youth tournament named in his honour and dispensing the sort of unimpeachable wisdom which once made British officials the most respected in the world.

Aston was not due to referee that match in 1962. He had been given the honour of refereeing the opening match of the tournament just three days earlier - when the match ball disappeared and he had to use a practice ball - but temperatures were rising in Chile over some disparaging articles sent home by a couple of Italian journalists which, among other insults, according to the Chilean media at least, questioned the beauty and morals of Chilean women. As senior referee, Aston was assigned to the trouble spot. Before kick-off a placatory gift of carnations from the Italian players was forcibly rejected by the Chileans; within 12 seconds Ferrini was booked, within seven a brawl had broken out and the Italian defender had been sent off, in echoes of another incident in which Aston was involved, with Antonio Rattin at Wembley four years later, refusing to go until frogmarched away by the Chilean police.

"I expected a difficult match," Aston recalls. "But not an impossible one. I just had to do the best I could. The thing that amuses me now when I see the video clips is that I always say to referees never to lay a hand on a player. Yet, there I am, manhandling players left, right and centre." The mayhem continued until Sanchez retaliated to a kick by Mario David with a left hook to the jaw. David was laid out, but Sanchez remained on the field. "I had my back to the incident at the time," Aston said. "If the referee or linesman sees nothing, nothing can be done. I'm sure the linesman did see it, but he refused to tell me." The linesman was Leo Goldstein, subject of Aston's earlier story.

David recovered, but Italian suspicions were further fuelled when he was later sent off for a retaliatory kung-fu kick at Sanchez. A Fifa official emerged from the Italian dressing-room at half-time covered in spit. "It did cross my mind to abandon the match," Aston says. "But I couldn't be responsible for the safety of the Italian players if I did. I thought that then and I still think it now. I tell you one thing, I didn't add on any stoppage time." Two goals by Chile in the final quarter of the match averted any potential crowd trouble, but Aston never refereed another World Cup match. He moved upstairs into the committee room to become chairman of the Fifa referees committee and Fifa's chief refereeing instructor. His mind is still fertile ground for theory and an unlikely source of revolution.

"I know I'm a bloody old fool, but I think about the game. When they changed the rule to three points for a win, I advocated six points for a game, two points for the winners of each half, two points for the overall winners. That would put an end to teams shutting up shop for the second half." The American influence perhaps. It is a source of mild amusement that he was appointed MBE for "services to US soccer". Some sadness too, as if his own country had turned its back. Yet, as he claims the patent on red and yellow cards, Aston's influence pervades almost every game. There is a story here too.

"It was after the Argentina game at Wembley in 1966, when I had to go on to the pitch to get Rattin off," he says. "The newspapers wrote that both of the Charltons had been booked. Alf Ramsey rang up the Fifa office for clarification because no one had seen it. As I drove off in my little MGB down Kensington High Street, the traffic light turned red. I thought, 'Yellow, take it easy, red, stop, you're off'. That's where the idea came from." Aston was also the author of what he grandly calls the Tehran Memo, the definitive ruling on the tackle from behind, now outlawed by Fifa, much to Aston's disgust.

"It's not a problem to determine intention. If it's serious foul play, the player can be sent off, but not every time. In my day, you were allowed to use your discretion. The game should be a two-act play with 22 players on stage and the referee as the director. There is no script, no plot, you don't know the ending, but the idea is to provide enjoyment, first to the players, then to the spectators and finally to yourself. That's the same whether it's Wembley or Hackney Marshes. A referee should be allowed to be inconsistent, a foul which merits a little chat one match might lead to a booking the next. It depends on the circumstances of the game."

He is against professional referees on the grounds that financial dependency might lead to swayed judgements, is passionately anti- bureaucracy. And he would have sent Alan Shearer off for fouling Tony Adams in the Cup final. "Serious foul play, in my opinion." The survivor of the Battle of Santiago should be well qualified to judge.

Dispatch from the battlefront

Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football possibly in the history of the game... after seeing the film tonight, you at home may well think that teams that play in this manner ought to be expelled immediately from the competition.

David Coleman, introducing highlights of the Chile v Italy match on BBC1 in 1962.