Football: Ellis a knockout during the Battle of Berne

Guy Hodgson on a referee who stamped his authority as Brazil and Hungary went to war in a 1954 World Cup quarter-final

Guy Hodgson
Monday 08 June 1998 23:02

ANYONE over 25 probably remembers Arthur Ellis. Straight man to Stuart Hall and Eddie Waring, he presided over It's A Knockout on television for 18 years, imposing rule on chaos.

Which is akin to recalling Wellington for his boots. They happened but were scarcely important compared to the Iron Duke's destruction of Napoleon's armies on the Iberian peninsula and at Waterloo. Ellis was one of football's great referees.

Now 83, it is not an exaggeration to say Ellis' c.v. is the sort few players can better. He refereed in three World Cups, including the 1950 final, officiated in the first European Cup final (Real Madrid 4 Reims 3), the 1952 FA Cup final and was in charge of more than 40 internationals.

You do not become part of moments like these unless you are a special kind of whistle blower, but one match set him apart. The Battle of Berne it was later named and it was one of the most unpleasant games in World Cup history. Ellis was a man caught in the middle of a war zone.

He refereed Brazil in the 1950 finals when they beat Sweden 7-1 and also officiated in the Olympic final two years later when Hungary's Mighty Magyars won the gold medal. When he learned he would be in charge of their World Cup quarter-final of 1954 he was thrilled at the prospect.

"I thought it was going to be the greatest game I'd ever see," he said at his Brighouse home. "I was on top of the world." It was a wholly deluded anticipation. "Whether politics and religion had something to do with it I don't know, but they behaved like animals. It was a disgrace."

Football was forgotten as vendettas were carried on. Nilton Santos and Josef Bozsik, a member of Hungary's parliament, exchanged punches and were sent off; at one point Djalma Santos, spitting and gesticulating, was chasing Zoltan Czibor round the pitch behind the referee's back; with four minutes left Ellis dismissed another Brazilian, Humberto Tozzi, who fell to his knees pleading not to go.

The final whistle merely ended what discipline was left. Pinheiro was hit on the head by a bottle thrown from the Hungarian bench (allegedly by the injured Ferenc Puskas) and the fighting continued off the pitch when the Brazilians invaded their opponents' dressing-room.

"It was a horrible match," Ellis continued. "In today's climate so many players would have been sent off the game would have been abandoned. My only thought was that I was determined to finish it." Did he know about the fight in the dressing-room? "I knew something was going on but I wasn't going to get involved. Amazingly, football's governing body did nothing, leaving discipline to the respective countries. "Fifa turned a blind eye. Too many committee members were afraid of losing trips to nice places." The retribution never came. "They were the only players I ever sent off who were never punished," Ellis said.

If that match left a bad taste, then Ellis' first World Cup in Brazil four years earlier was one of wonder. He was linesman in the opening fixture, refereed two others and also ran the line in what, in a tournament run on a league basis, was effectively the final, between the home country and Uruguay. The images are still strong.

In the first game, Brazil's opening goal against Mexico prompted a pitch invasion, not from spectators but from reporters and radio commentators trying to get quotes. In the last, a world record 204,000 spectators packed into the massive new Maracana in the expectation of a Brazilian victory.

Instead Uruguay won 2-1. "That crowd will never be beaten, they wouldn't allow it today. I remember Juan Schiaffino scoring for Uruguay. He mishit it but it went in at the near post and the reaction was amazing. The biggest crowd in football history and you could have heard a pin drop."

As for England's notorious defeat by the United States in the same tournament, Ellis' reaction was the same as everybody else's, one of disbelief. "I was refereeing Italy versus Paraguay in Sao Paulo that day and it was the first time I'd seen an electronic scoreboard because at that time they used to chalk scores on a blackboard and walk it round the field. We thought that England had won 10-1 and they couldn't put double figures on the scoreboard."

Forced to retire in 1962 at the age of 47, the timing coincided with BBC exploring pantomime for prizes and It's A Knockout was born, something he still participates in on company days thanks to Stuart Hall's buying of the props and costumes. It is the only refereeing he does these days and for that he is grateful.

"Everything is regimented," said Ellis, who selects Uriah Rennie and Peter Jones as the best of the current officials. "A referee can't use his ability, he's told what to do and has to do it. In my time you stamped your personality on a game. I wouldn't get away now with the things I used to do."

Like the time he calmed down a raging Bob Paisley. "I remember him threatening to part an opponent's hair if he beat him once more," he said, laughing deep and loud. "I offered him a comb."

It is not just the fact that he saw Paisley, the greatest of English club managers, as a player that places Ellis in a different age, it is the humour. Can you imagine a modern referee defusing a potentially explosive situation with a joke? The only thing today's officials are armed with is an unsmiling demeanour and a pocketful of yellow and red cards.

You wonder whether today's automated approach could handle games like the Battle of Berne. France 98 prays there will be no repetition but if there is you hope the referee will be as brave.

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