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Ex-La Liga ref Iturralde: ‘Nobody in football really wants justice, they all want benefits’


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“The atmosphere around referees in Spanish football is very contaminated at the moment,” says Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez.

Iturralde was a referee for 31 years, working in La Liga from 1995 until his retirement in 2012. Now a regular on Carrusel Deportivo, Spain’s most popular football radio show, he is an outspoken defender of his former colleagues.

Match officials here have a challenging role at present, with faith in Spanish refereeing arguably at an all-time low.

Prosecutors are investigating payments totalling €7.3million (£6.2m/$7.9m at current rates) made by Barcelona to former refereeing committee (CTA) vice-president Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira between 2001 and 2018. Both Barcelona and Negreira have denied any wrongdoing.

Up and down the Primera Division, Spain’s top flight, clubs are critical of refereeing standards, and players and coaches complain loudly about decisions that go against them. Current CTA president Luis Medina Cantalejo has had to publicly ask clubs not to use their official social media accounts to criticise his colleagues.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s own TV channel regularly broadcasts videos cut together to lend weight to the idea that certain referees are biased against the Bernabeu side.

“It’s the Real Madrid TV videos that are biased,” Iturralde counters. “If the videos said, ‘These four decisions went for us, these four went against us’, then fine. That would be information, but they only show the mistakes.

“If they are trying to influence referees with these videos, they don’t work. These videos are really for their own audience, telling fans that everyone else is against them. It’s like what (former Madrid coach Jose) Mourinho did, to try and unite the group and make it stronger.

“(The case involving) Negreira exploded everything, but it happens in every country — refereeing has always lacked credibility. Now, with social media, it is more difficult than ever for referees. The only people who defend them are their families, and one or two friends.”

By the time referees reach La Liga level, they are accustomed to criticism and abuse, says Iturralde. However, the real victims are the friends and families of the officials who get targeted.

“Those (Real Madrid TV) videos generate violence, not against the referee in the stadium, as there are police and security there, but in the day to day of the people around him,” Iturralde says.

“From when you start as a referee at age 14, everyone insults you and criticises you. We just get used to it, make ourselves a bubble. But it affects the private lives of the referees, their families — their kids go to school and classmates tell them, ‘Your father robbed us’.”

Iturralde has often spoken about this issue on the Carrusel radio show, which covers games every weekend. He even linked the constant targeting of referees by Real Madrid TV to a case where a 16-year-old was seriously assaulted after taking charge of a youth match in the Spanish capital.

Shortly afterwards, Real Madrid TV published a video showing decisions from his career as a referee, headlined: “Iturralde Gonzalez has finally taken the mask off and now he spends his time attacking Real Madrid in the media.”

In January, a story published by news outlet OK Diario claimed that Spain’s authorities had seized a property owned by Iturralde due to unpaid taxes. That story, and others, have also linked him to Negreira.

“They attack me as they know I am very pro-referees, and I use a big loudspeaker at La Ser (the radio station which broadcasts the Carrusel show) to counter their message,” Iturralde says.

“It annoys them that someone fights back, with my own weapons. They say I was Negreira’s favourite. The first thing I did when I saw that story in OK Diario was check the official register, and everything was paid-up.

“Back when I refereed, I was called the ‘right hand’ of (then Spanish Football Federation president Angel Maria) Villar’. I was called ‘anti-Madridista’. But it’s all a story they make up.”

This month, the Spanish federation (RFEF) opened a disciplinary investigation into the Real Madrid TV videos, after Sevilla alleged that broadcasts before their away game against Madrid in February sought to “influence” the match officials appointed for the fixture, doing “serious damage to Spanish football”.

Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti and other figures at the club have defended the videos, citing “freedom of speech”.

Iturralde Gonzalez talking to Thierry Henry of Barcelona in 2009 (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The Spanish government’s national commission against violence in sport could in theory take action against the club and their TV channel. La Liga president Javier Tebas has also suggested its public broadcast licence could be withdrawn.

Real Madrid were approached for comment for this article.

Iturralde doubts anything will really be done, given the power of Madrid, and their millions of supporters throughout Spain.

“How many votes can Real Madrid take away from the (ruling) Socialist Party?,” says Iturralde. “They have a very small majority, so they think, ‘We’re not getting into that’. Madrid talks about the right of free expression, but nobody talks about the referee’s rights.”

Meanwhile, Barcelona head coach Xavi has claimed the videos on Real Madrid TV have “adulterated” this season’s La Liga title race, due to the pressure exerted on officials before and after games.

“That’s another message to unite his own fans,” says Iturralde. “In what way is it adulterated? Where? Referees will make mistakes, of course, players and coaches make mistakes too, in every game. It’s just populist messages for his team’s supporters — and they buy them.”

Real Madrid were outraged at the start of this month when referee Jesus Gil Manzano blew for full time in their La Liga game at Valencia, seconds before Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham headed what would have been a winning goal.

Bellingham was sent off for his protests, which included aiming the word “f**k” at Gil Manzano. La Liga’s other Englishman Mason Greenwood and Rayo Vallecano’s Ghanaian centre-back Abdul Mumin have also been shown red cards this season for using that word towards a referee.

“All Primera Division referees speak English,” says Iturralde. “But Bellingham was sent off for the aggression in his tone, the way he spoke. That type of language may be permitted in English football, by the referees, for cultural reasons.

“It’s not the case that saying, ‘F**k you’ equals a red card. You have to look at the context, the tone, and allow the referee to judge. People say, ‘The player’s heart rate is going at 150 (beats per minute)’, but you still cannot act like that towards the referee.”

In the two gameweeks since that Valencia-Madrid match, Gil Manzano was not chosen to referee any fixture. Media reports have claimed the CTA put him ‘in the freezer’ as punishment for disallowing the Bellingham header.

Iturralde says the ‘freezer’ does not really exist — that there are 20 referees but only 10 La Liga games to work on each weekend, so very few officials do consecutive rounds of fixtures (this interview happened before Gil Manzano was overlooked for a second week running). But he adds that the CTA tries to avoid controversy with their appointments, a policy which ends up undermining the authority of the referees.

“Imagine what a strong referees’ committee president would do, someone really independent,” he says. “They’d appoint Gil Manzano to referee Madrid’s next game at home in the Bernabeu.

“The message to the clubs would be, ‘You can say what they like, but I’m in charge here. And if you keep protesting, next weekend it will be Gil Manzano too’.

UEFA (European football’s governing body, which oversees the Champions League and its two other club cups, plus national-team competitions) is the same. If there is a problem from a certain club or national team, they keep you (as a referee) away from them. That is politics, and not good for refereeing. You’re letting the environment influence which referees get which games.”

Iturralde was a victim of this environment himself during his days as a referee.

He was set to be in charge of the 2011 Copa del Rey final between Madrid and arch-rivals Barcelona, but the Bernabeu hierarchy were allowed to veto him (four months earlier, he had sent off Madrid defender Sergio Ramos in a match where they lost 5-0 at Barca’s Camp Nou).

Iturralde (in yellow) showing Ramos the red card in November 2010 (David Ramos/Getty Images)

“The referees’ committee decided I would whistle that game,” says Iturralde. “But if a team does not agree, says, ‘We don’t want Iturralde for his style of refereeing’, or whatever reason… the committee then arranged (Alberto) Undiano (Mallenco) instead, and both Barca and Madrid said OK.

“The clubs should not have so much power, but I also understand the committee — when the game is over, neither team can complain about the referee, as they have chosen him.”

Born in Bilbao, Iturralde had hung up his whistle and retired before La Liga introduced video assistant referees (VAR) in the 2018-19 season. He says the idea that, by watching replays, officials can get every decision correct is flawed, because many of the calls they make are not black and white but about interpreting the laws of the game.

“Everyone believed VAR would end all mistakes,” the now 57-year-old says. “People say, ‘How can they keep making mistakes when it is on the screen?’, but most of the rules in football are about interpretation — handball, pulls on jersey, challenges, whether an aggression is worth a red or a yellow card. And everybody has their own interpretation.”

This season’s biggest VAR controversy in La Liga also featured Madrid, when Ancelotti’s side came from two goals down to win 3-2 against struggling visitors Almeria in January after three huge VAR-assisted decisions went their way.

Each of those calls involved VAR official Alejandro Jose Hernandez Hernandez asking on-pitch referee Francisco Jose Hernandez Maeso to rethink his initial decision.



Real Madrid’s VAR controversy demonstrates the pressures facing Spanish referees

“The main mistake I see is that the VAR passes a lot of information to the referee,” says Iturralde. “You can have a doubt about a play, amid all the nerves down on the pitch and the pressure from the fans, and someone in the calmer environment of the VAR room is telling you, ‘Look how he kicks him’, or, ‘It hits the hand’. Whether you like it or not, it influences your thinking.

Hernandez Maeso checks the VAR monitor during Real Madrid vs Almeria (Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

“For me, it would have much more credibility if the VAR were to say, ‘Look, something has happened that I want you to see on the screen’. You let him watch the play again, but without conditioning him on what to look for. (Sometimes) the field referee is almost being told what to whistle. And that is not why VAR was brought in.”

Another problem with VAR, for Iturralde, is the long wait while decisions are reviewed, and the ability to view multiple replays on the pitchside monitor. This means too much time to think for the on-pitch official.

“The referee is the elite sportsperson who should think the least,” Iturralde says. “Because if you start to think, you start to think about the consequences. That is only human. The referee has to just whistle what they see on instinct. To decide immediately.”

Since January, audio conversations between the VAR and on-pitch referees in Spanish games have been made public. La Liga and the Spanish federation argued this would help fans understand decisions, but Iturralde sees it as just more “content”, designed to provoke debate.

“Making the VAR audio public was not to improve the standard of refereeing,” he says. “The audios are good for La Liga, as there is more spectacle for people to buy. VAR is also more content for the media. But it has not improved football, not at all.”

Barcelona’s payments to Negreira were initially discovered by Spain’s tax authorities, and became public knowledge when public prosecutors first announced their investigation in February last year. Barcelona claimed they were his recompense for compiling reports on referees to help their team prepare for games. However, a month later, the club were charged with corruption. Madrid, the RFEF and La Liga have since entered the case as injured parties.



Negreira called to testify in Barcelona corruption case

“The Negreira case is a pity for football. For refereeing, it has done a lot of damage,” says Iturralde. “There was little credibility before, and now there is even less. Nobody defends the referees, everyone just wants to use it for their own ends. All the media machinery has cranked up, especially in Madrid. But, 18 months later, we have yet to find out what happened to the €7million.”

All those being investigated deny any wrongdoing and Iturralde says it is impossible that these payments were to ‘fix’ the Primera Division.

“Negreira did not appoint referees for games, and anyway, you’d need to buy 38 games, and the 20 referees,” he says. “Plus we’re talking about maybe the best Barcelona team in history. What happened with Enriquez Negreira the day (Antonio) Mateu Lahoz disallowed a goal by Leo Messi against Atletico Madrid that would have won Barca the (2013-14) La Liga trophy?” Atletico were crowned champions instead.

Atletico’s 2013-14 La Liga title was their first in 18 years (Manuel Blondeau/AOP.Press/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Negreira case has brought a spotlight on Spanish clubs’ relationships with referees. Most have an ex-official on the club payroll, as a ‘pitch delegate’. That idea recently entered English football, with Nottingham Forest hiring former referee Mark Clattenburg, who soon publicly criticised the officiating in a Premier League game of theirs against Liverpool.

“The clubs hire these people thinking they will get better treatment from referees,” says Iturralde. “But it does not work, the referee (in any game) just does his job. It is more public relations by the club, to their own fans. The delegate just helps you at the stadium, making sure you have everything you need.”

Madrid president Florentino Perez has mentioned the Negreira case while calling on the Spanish government to mandate change in how refereeing is organised in Spain. La Liga’s Tebas also told The Athletic last summer that he would like a new independent refereeing body established.



‘Clubs knew it needed to change’: Tebas talks foreign investment and La Liga’s strict financial rules

“La Liga, the clubs, they don’t really want to change how refereeing is organised. They all want to control it, for their own interests,” Iturralde says. “If you really wanted change, you would suggest ideas, but they never do that.

“Nobody in the world of football really wants justice, they all want benefits. If you really want justice, you have to admit when you benefit (from a mistake), and say, ‘Today, we won because of a penalty which was wrongly awarded’. But you never hear that.”

A key issue for Iturralde is that referees do not have their own independent bodies which could support and protect their members. Instead, he says, all referees’ chiefs are dependent on someone else, whether that is their national federations, UEFA or world football governing body FIFA, and these are bodies more concerned with their reputation among fans and clubs than they are about protecting match officials.

“Refereeing can never be strong while its organisation depends completely on the clubs and the federations,” Iturralde says. “(Former referees Pierluigi) Collina and (Roberto) Rosetti (the previous and current UEFA chief refereeing officer) cannot do what they really would like to do, if they want to keep their jobs. Refereeing should be totally independent, then it would be much stronger.”

It would also really help, Iturralde feels, if everyone in football was open to the idea that referees were just human, and could make mistakes, without it all being a big conspiracy against their team.

“Referees will have bad games — very bad games; it happens,” “he says. “Sometimes you have a day when nothing goes right for you.

“Just like strikers who can go 20 games without scoring a goal, or goalkeepers who can’t make a save. That is accepted as normal. In contrast, when a referee makes a mistake, it must be deliberate.”

(Top photo: Bagu Blanco/Getty Images)

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