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Soccer’s Most Famous Referees

Better heard but not seen, referees are a crucial part of any soccer match whether it’s a pre-season friendly or the Champions League final. They are there to make crucial decisions and keep order, calling fouls, awarding penalties and free kicks, and protecting the players.it’s a job that nobody really wants to do, but someone has to do it, and here are some of the ten best ever to get between the biggest teams in world soccer.

Pierluigi Collina (ITA)

Anyone who grew up watching soccer in the 90s and early 2000s knows exactly who Pierluigi Collina is. Famous for his bald head, Collina officiated some classic games of the late nineties, including the iconic Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Manchester United. 

He was named FIFA’s Best Referee six times in a row, and many consider him the very best ever to pull on the black (or red, or yellow, or green) shirt. Currently, he serves as part of UEFA’s Referees Committee, and therefore still has some influence on what happens on the pitch. 

Howard Webb (ENG)

A former sergeant for South Yorkshire police, Howard Webb stands out as one of the most imposing and formidable referees in the modern game. His ‘listed’ career spanned from 2003 up until his retirement in 2014, and since then, he has gone onto work as part of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, serving as the Technical Director. 

Any Englishman will recognize Webb on-sight. However, international viewers may also remember him from the distinct honor of officiating both UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup finals in the same year (2010). 

Markus Merk (GER)

Before Collina and Webb, there was Markus Merk. During his career, he was considered the very best the referee side of soccer had to offer, and he holds the record for the most Bundesliga games ever officiated. 

A three time Best Referee winner, he also won the DFB German Referee of the Year six times, which still stands as a record today. Merk is also considered the youngest referee, making his debut in 1988 at the age of just 25. To put this into perspective, most top flight referees rarely make such an appearance until their mid-30s at the very earliest.

Kim Milton Nielsen (DEN)

Kim Milton Nielsen stood 6 foot 6 inches tall, and as a result is one of the most intimidating referees players were likely to play against. His name might sound familiar to the English, as he was the one responsible for sending David Beckham off against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup in France. 

Besides this slight controversy that English fans have definitely gotten over, Nielsen has an astounding career, officiating 154 international games and 54 Champions League matches. He also took charge of the 1994 UEFA Cup Final (now known as the Europa League), and the 2004 Champions League final, where Jose Mourinho’s Porto defeated Monaco.

Sandor Puhl (HUN)

Sandor Puhl has an interesting reputation to say the least, and depending on where you are from, you may either love or hate him. As is typical of referees, his most famous moment came from controversy. His failure to award a penalty or even a card to Mauro Tassotti in the 1994 World Cup Quarter Final against Spain still leads to people cursing his name across the country, and this caused FIFA to suspend him for eight games following a review. 

This however came after refereeing the 1994 final between Italy and Brazil, and he was also named the best referee in the world by the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics) between 1994 and 1997. 

Peter Mikkelsen (DEN) 

You could say that Peter Mikkelsen walked so that Nielsen could run. He is considered the pioneer of superb Danish refereeing, and this is reflected in his history. Making his international debut at just 30 years old, he officiated two games at Italia 90, and again in 1994 while also refereeing in the UEFA Champions League. 

He was named the best referee in the world in 1991 and 1993, and although he died in 2019, his legacy still lives on across the world.

Michel Vautrot (FRA)

Voted the world’s best referee by the IFHSS twice, Michel Vautrot was the man in the middle for the Euro Cup (Champions League) Final between FC Barcelona and Steaua Bucharest, in which remains their only European trophy. 

He also, however, came into some controversy. The 1990 World Cup semi-final between Italy and Argentina included eight minutes of stoppage time following his error in forgetting to check his watch, while on a more serious note, Italian side AS Roma were accused of bribing him £50,000 prior to the semi-final match in the 1984 Euro Cup against Dundee United. 

Pedro Proença (POR)

Pedro Proença could easily be considered the best referee still operating in a career that spans 17 years so far. He was made a part of UEFA’s Elite referee group in 2009, following exceptional performances during his first six years.

Proença also became the first referee to take charge of both UEFA Champions League and European Championship finals in the same year, and back home, he has officiated some of the biggest games in both league and domestic competitions. 

Oscar Ruiz (COL)

Considered the best Colombian referee ever, Oscar Ruiz worked as part of the FIFA referee setup from 1995 to 2011, debuting in an international game between Paraguay and Venezuela.

He came under some criticism for dismissing Yohan Gourcuff during the final group match against South Africa at the 2010 World Cup, before announcing his retirement a year later. Since then, he has worked as part of the CONMEBOL, in its refereeing assistance program. 

Frank De Bleeckere (BEL)

Frank De Bleeckere is a seven-time winner of the Belgian Referee of the Year Award between 2000 and 2013, and refereed his first international match during a 2002 World Cup Qualifier between Cyrus and Ireland. 

Unlike other referees mentioned, he has a significant presence in the youth game, being part of the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship and 2005 FIFA Under-17s Championship. He has also performed on a European level, taking part in Euro 2004 and 2008, and later served as an refereeing advisor for FIFA in 2012. 

The Man in the Middle 

Refereeing is often a thankless task, and it’s the proof that you can never please everyone at once. No matter who you are, there will always be a decision that the other team disagrees with. Still, these referees proved repeatedly they are immune to the pressure of 100,000 rabid fans, as well as the millions watching at home, and that’s why their names will continue to live on long past their retirement, standing out as the neutral icons of the game.