In the players’ tunnel of the Jalisco stadium, Abraham Klein was impressed and a little frightened.
A novice referee, the 36-year-old was about to lead his first World Cup match, a first-round blockbuster between England and Brazil. The defending champions and the game’s spiritual masters.
“I looked behind me and I saw the world champions: Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Francis Lee… What a team,” exclaims Klein at his seaside flat in Haifa.
“On the other side I saw Brazil, with Pelé, Jairzinho, Tostão, Carlos Alberto, Rivellino. My hands were shaking and I told myself immediately that I must put my hands in my pocket because if Bobby Moore and Carlos Alberto saw my hands shaking, well, they’d ask themselves, ‘what kind of a referee do we have?’.”
With kick-off imminent, Klein needed to compose himself. The heat in Guadalajara was oppressive. In the stands, the teeming masses enhanced the chromatic intensity of a match that had the potential to define the tournament.
“When I started to walk with the two teams I thought ‘now is the time to take out your hands strongly, shake the hands of both captains in the middle of the field strongly, look them in the eyes and let them know that there is a referee on the field’.”
Klein’s own presence and performance at the World Cup were remarkable. At home in Haifa, resources and support for referees were limited. Israel belonged to the Asian football fraternity, which prevented Klein from gaining experience in Europe and refereeing major international matches on a regular basis.
In 1965, he led a friendly between Italy and Poland, a match for which Klein had prepared meticulously by secretly flying to Rome a fortnight earlier to watch a domestic match and understand Italy’s local football culture.
In Mexico, Klein was the only Asian Football Confederation referee. FIFA’s Referees Committee took a risk by entrusting Klein with the responsibility of leading the standout match of the group stages. Germany’s Kurt Tschenscher or Peru’s Arturo Yamasaki had an eminence that was difficult to discard.
“Even some English journalists wrote ‘How could you send this boy scout to this big game?” recalls Klein.
Klein didn’t disappoint. He is not much remembered for his role in the match, an accolade for any referee. The match is considered the high point of the greatest World Cup ever for its sheer intensity, dramatic tension and star quality.
Yet, the opening stages were not exactly carefree. In the first minutes Alan Mullery, Pelé’s shadow, walloped the great Brazilian. At the half-hour mark, Klein intervened decisively to prevent a fracas.
“I handed a yellow card to Francis Lee,” says Klein. “Until that moment, nothing had happened. There was contact between Lee and the Brazilian goalkeeper. I noticed straightaway that Brazil’s players encircled Lee. I’d never used a yellow card before. They understood that I was having no more.”
Klein asserted his authority, an asset he deems most important for any referee. Even more so than a perfect understanding of the laws of the game.
It is something he picked up from his mentor and friend, Ken Aston. The Englishman refereed the Battle of Santiago at the 1962 World Cup – a contest between Chile and Italy that’s considered one of the most violent matches in the tournament’s history – chaired FIFA’s Referees Committee for eight years and introduced yellow and red cards in the game.
“He offered me advice,” says Klein. “I refereed Italy-England in 1976 and he wrote me before and after the game. ‘You shouldn’t give advantage in the first 10 minutes. Whistle for everything, otherwise it’s going to be a dirty game. Don’t let players complain or you will lose your authority.’ Without authority, you cannot referee a game. Authority is so important that you only understand it after you finish your career.”
After the Munich massacre in 1972, Klein was omitted from the referees’ list for the 1974 World Cup. He returned for both the 1978 and 1982 tournaments, when he refereed Italy’s match against Brazil.
The Israeli would never get to officiate a World Cup final. He suspects that politics and his refereeing of Argentina-Italy, a game the hosts lost in 1978, are to blame. But he has few regrets, not in a small part due to his enduring admiration for the Brazilian interpretation of the beautiful game.
“In his book, Ken Aston wrote that ‘it was a concert, it was an opera’,” says Klein. “Brazil against England was a game that we are not used to. Brazilians play the way they dance samba: to watch how the Brazilian players play is something that you cannot discover in other countries. Germany, Argentina and France, it’s not the same.”
Half a century on, he’s still convinced that no team will match Brazil’s freeform exuberance and quality. Jairzinho’s 59th-minute goal proved to be the winning goal and truly kickstarted Brazil’s glorious World Cup campaign in Mexico.
“You couldn’t tell a player like Jairzinho or Tostão tactics: you stay put,” exclaims Klein.
“They were geniuses who did things that you couldn’t even imagine. They moved like rock stars on the field of play. I don’t think there will be a team like this again. I remember the goal a hundred times. How Tostão moved, how he passed the ball, how Jairzinho ran across and scored the goal. It was a wonderful game.”