When the tournament kicked off in Porto Saturday afternoon, one man stood out on the pitch as much as Portugal star Luís Figo: the towering, bald Italian referee Pierluigi Collina, whose glowering stare has helped make him the game's only celebrity whistle-blower. For more than 20 years, Collina, a 44-year-old financial adviser from Bologna, has deployed his ferocious gaze and slightly scary smile in an increasingly prestigious range of matches, including the 1999 Champions League final, the 2002 World Cup final, and May's UEFA Cup final. But since Italian rules dictate that referees retire at 45, these European Championships must be his last.
Not that Collina has started reminiscing. "I will have many times to remember," he told TIME. "But now, it's important to think about what I am doing, not what I did."
Collina's work has made him emblematic of the state of refereeing: respected for his fearlessness and command on the field, he is central to the debate about whether today's refs are quite as good as today's players. Fans of Olympique Marseilles are still complaining about Collina's dismissal of their goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, in the UEFA Cup final against Valencia, who went on to win 2-0. But he has many admirers.
Pelé once saluted him as "one of the best in the world"; former Lazio and current England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson has referred to him as "a guarantee." For Collina, it's all so much white noise. He prepares meticulously for games. "You must know the teams' way of playing and their tactics," he says, "and the skillfulness and characteristics of the players. All these help you to be ready to read the match properly." In the Portugal-Greece opener, Collina had a much better game than did Figo, who whined about missed foul calls. Even though the axiom is that the better a referee, the less you know he's there, Collina's presence is always unmistakable even if some of his calls are not.