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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK

The whistle of authority

By Phil McNulty
BBC Sport Online's man in Japan

When Italy's Pierluigi Collina casts his imposing and unmistakeable presence over the World Cup final, it will be a fitting reward for the game's finest referee.

The 42-year-old financial controller from Viareggio is now as instantly recognisable as many of football's highest paid stars, thanks to his trademark bald head and an intimidating stare at any player foolish enough to question his authority.

Collina is the antithesis of the theory that the best officials are those you never notice.

You notice Collina constantly, but only because he is so good.

And only because he has an almost perfect record of judging the big decisions and the big matches just right.

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson simply described Collina as "a guarantee" - and he should know after the Italian officiated two of the country's most famous victories.

Collina took charge of the 5-1 win in Germany in a World Cup qualifier last September, and also the win in the current finals against Argentina in Sapporo.

Calming presence

The giant Italian was perfectly placed to award England a penalty when Michael Owen was fouled, and the Argentines knew there was no point in debating the decision.

Collina has a calming presence on a game, and wins the respect of world-class and highly-paid international footballers for the most compelling reason of all - he rarely gets the major decisions wrong.

He will talk to players during the game without conceding any of his authority.

He appears to know what makes players tick and how to handle any situation, whether it is explosive or sensitive.

" In Collina, Fifa has a referee with a safe-hands image, the man they turn to when the pressure is on "

It does not, however, pay to take him on.

England's Paul Ince discovered this to his cost in Sweden when a less than complimentary remark about Collina's appearance led to a red card in September 1998.

Fifa knows the world is watching after recent controversies over poor officiating.

And in Collina, it has a referee with a safe-hands image, the man to turn to when the pressure is on.

Collina's status was confirmed when Fifa voted him their top official for the fourth time in August.

And his appointment was virtually a formality once Italy went out of the World Cup, ironically complaining about officials when the best is one of their own.

" I consider myself part of the best group of referees in the world "
The modest Collina

Collina is renowned for his meticulous attention to detail and preparation, and is a firm believer in full-time referees.

"I consider myself part of the best group of referees in the world," he says modestly of his own reputation.

"This is the most important thing for me. I think each of us is working very hard to be well prepared for the high standards that football now requires."

Highest accolade

Collina entered refereeing by chance, taking charge of his team-mates matches while he was injured.

He refereed his first Serie A match on 15 December 1991, and also took charge of the 1996 Olympic Final when Nigeria beat Argentina 3-2.

Collina - who also refereed the dramatic 1999 Champions League Final when Manchester United won in injury time against Bayern Munich - has now been handed the highest accolade of all.

And with Fifa desperate for a World Cup final without any more controversy, they have gone for the man who nearly always gets it right.

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