Israel's Most Beloved Referee Gets Hero's Welcome at FIFA Soccer Museum

Referee Abraham Klein shared a field with some of the game's greats during three World Cups, and is now sharing his impressive collection of memorabilia with visitors to the World Football Museum in Zurich

Abraham Klein at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, October 25, 2017.
Uzi Dann

A little over 47 years ago, a young Israeli soccer referee called Abraham Klein was sensationally handed the most talked-about match of the 1970 World Cup. As he took to the field in Guadalajara, he noticed he had instinctively pushed his hands deep into his pockets, and they were trembling with excitement. This was only natural. After all, he was about to referee England against Brazil – the birthplace of the sport versus the best team the world had ever seen; the outgoing champion against the favorite to win that year’s tournament; Pelé against Bobby Moore.

“[Captains] Moore and Carlos Alberto were shaking hands, and I knew they would soon be shaking mine,” Klein recounts in an interview with Haaretz. “I was a relatively unknown referee, from a small country participating in its first World Cup. Players always check out the referee – and here were two of the greatest players of their generation. I took my hands out of my pockets and gave them firm handshakes; I showed confidence.”

At a moving ceremony in Zurich on Wednesday evening, Klein closed a chapter in his life. This time, there was no need for any bravado or demonstrations of authority. Despite the emotion, and even at 83, Klein’s hands did not shake and there was plenty of confidence.

The most accomplished representative ever to emerge from Israeli soccer was being given the opportunity to fulfill his last great sporting dream: He was donating a large part of his impressive collection of soccer memorabilia to the FIFA World Football Museum, located not far from the headquarters of world soccer’s governing body in the Swiss city. Klein’s contribution will be commemorated in a prominent section of the museum.

Klein amassed an impression collection of memorabilia from every stage of his long and distinguished career. He began as a referee in the local leagues in the early 1960s, yet by 1965 was already officiating international matches.

He refereed at two Olympic Games and three World Cups (1970 in Mexico, 1978 in Argentina and 1982 in Spain), in addition to presiding over countless other international matches. His collection included flags, whistles, emblems, badges, albums, photographs, red and yellow cards, letters, ties, pennants, trophies – and, of course, match balls, which had been gathering dust in plastic bags in a closet.

About 18 months ago, Haaretz reported that Klein’s collection was up for sale on eBay, thanks to former publisher and curator Mordi Alon – without whom many of the items may well have ended up in the trash.

The collection was valued at $370,000 – the match ball from the England v. Brazil game alone would have fetched $50,000 – but Klein insisted he didn’t want his collection to be bought by a rich collector. Instead, he wanted it to be housed in a museum, where it would be looked after for future generations.

Attendees at the ceremony honoring Abraham Klein, at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, October 25, 2017.
Uzi Dann

Dream come true

A week before Haaretz wrote about Klein’s collection, FIFA had opened its museum in Zurich. One of the museum employees read the article and was shocked to learn that such a valuable, historic collection was being put on public sale. He contacted Klein, who saw his dream come true. Instead of a few hundred thousand dollars, his collection is being safeguarded for future generations – exactly as he wishes. And the icing on the cake is that it’s being housed by the governing body itself.

But soccer is like life, and in life there are obstacles – some of them political. FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who had just taken office, decided that the newly opened museum was not profitable enough. He first changed the management, and then decided to close the museum altogether. Klein got word of the decision at his seafront apartment in Haifa – and was devastated.

A few months later, however, Klein got a message from the museum’s director, telling him there had been a change of heart. The museum sent a delegation to Haifa, a contract was signed and Klein agreed to accept a symbolic sum of money in exchange. After all, he had said all along that the collection was never about the money and – as he reiterated at this week’s ceremony – his only concern was passing the collection on to the next generation.

Surrounded by his family and high-ranking dignitaries from the world of soccer, Klein was clearly – and understandably – moved. The esteem and love felt for Klein moved all those present. The FIFA museum is impressive, but Klein’s items are rare, historical, irreplaceable.

FIFA showed its appreciation and, in so doing, it honored both itself and Klein.

“There have been years in which FIFA was my main family,” Klein said at Wednesday’s ceremony. “Just ask my children, Sharon and Amit, who are here today.”

Klein mentioned the soccer greats he had refereed during his career: Pelé and Diego Maradona; Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer; Michel Platini and Zico; Giacinto Facchetti and Dino Zoff – and spoke about the importance of handing down soccer’s grand heritage to the young.

Klein knows all about the importance of youth. After retiring from refereeing, he spent many years officiating youth matches in Israel and internationally.

“Encouraging kids to participate in sports is hugely important – and if that sport is soccer, even better,” he says. “That’s why I remained involved with young people. I always wanted to instill in them the love of sport that I have. Soccer offers young people paths to develop many positive character traits: friendships, healthy competition, responsibility, duty, teamwork, morale, responsibility, dealing with defeat, etc. The older generation must pass on the torch of loving soccer to the next generation.”

What sport teaches us

When the Olympic Experience – Israel’s Olympic museum in Tel Aviv – was opened, some said it was a waste of money. The same is said of sports museums across the world. But that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what sport is. History, heritage and learning from the past – as in every important part of our lives – are not just useful or necessary. They are vital for the future. This may come as a shock to some kids, but soccer wasn’t born when Lionel Messi and Ronaldo came along. The past is part of the present and the future.

Zurich was no doubt chosen as the location for the FIFA World Football Museum because that’s where the organization’s headquarters are – but it’s a problematic decision. Zurich doesn’t even make the list of the 100 most visited cities in the world. Perhaps it would have been smarter to build the museum in London, where the modern game was born; or in Paris, where FIFA still owns the original building in which it was founded in 1904. London and Paris attract more tourists than almost any other city.

Anyone who does make it to Zurich, though, should definitely check out the FIFA museum – and not just because of the Israeli connection. Any soccer fan – but especially children – will be surprised to see what the sport once looked like; what boots and heavy jerseys the players once wore. They may also be surprised by how much players have changed and how different matches are these days; how the rules of the game have evolved and what items were used to shares news from the match with the outside world.

The museum is a gem. Even without the VIP tour we were given by Guy Oliver – a Barbados-born Englishman who happened to volunteer on a kibbutz in 1982 – it’s well worth a visit. The museum focuses on soccer, not FIFA; on the beautiful game, not the organization that runs it. It has a huge collection of rare items on display, welcomes visitors of all ages and is packed with interactive activities.

There are certain items that leave you open-mouthed: the boots Brazilian forward Ademir wore in 1950; jerseys, posters and medals from the very first World Cup tournaments in the 1930s; a rainbow of jerseys made up of the national colors of dozens of countries. And even the checkroom is decked out like a locker room, with the names of great players over each locker. I left my bag in Socrates’ locker.

FIFA wants to turn the museum into a learning center for soccer. The potential is huge. The most important thing is that the game is loved. Visiting the museum allows you to feel a thread that stretches back for generations. Irrespective of race, religion, nationality, gender or age. Including an 83-year-old retiree from Haifa, who ran on the same grass as some of the greatest players in history, and who took charge of some of the world’s most important games.