Tales of Great Pelé, All in a Legendary Israeli Referee's Apartment

Abraham Klein aims to sell his soccer memorabilia to a museum, but even more valuable are the memories of the man who officiated when Brazil battled for glory.

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Abraham Klein showing the yellow card in the World Cup match England vs. Brazil, Guadalajara, Mexico, June 7, 1970.
Abraham Klein showing the yellow card in the World Cup match England vs. Brazil, Guadalajara, Mexico, June 7, 1970. Credit: AP
Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann

“Go on, open the envelope and see who you got,” a Hungarian colleague urged him. The referees for the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico were being told which games they would be officiating. “I can’t. I’m nervous,” was the reply.

Of course, he opened the envelope. England versus Brazil. The game of the tournament – the defending champion versus the heir apparent, the cradle of soccer versus the land of soccer, the Three Lions versus the Brazilian wonder team. Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore versus Pelé, Tostao, Jairzinho and Gerson. And inside the envelope, in black magic marker, the name Klein. Abraham Klein.

Yes, the young Israeli referee had impressed two years earlier at the Mexico Olympics, but no one could figure out why he drew the most important game. “Without a doubt, FIFA was taking a risk,” Klein recounts in his Haifa apartment overlooking the Mediterranean.

“The excitement only grew. As I took to the field at Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara I realized my hands were in my pockets, shaking with nervousness,” he says.

“Bobby Moore and Carlos Alberto shook each other’s hands and then mine, those of an unknown referee from a small country in his first World Cup. The players always check out the referee, and these were the greatest players. Pelé, of course, and Charlton. I took my hands out, shook theirs firmly, showed some confidence.”

Ken Aston, the great English referee who invented the red and yellow cards, made the right choice. It was one of the greatest games in soccer history – “a concert”, Klein says repeatedly. And don’t forget the unbelievable save by English goalkeeper Gordon Banks on Pelé’s header.

Pelé, by the way, became a friend. “I first met Klein at the England game in 1970, which was the most important game on the way to the title. It was a tough game, but he controlled it completely,” Pelé wrote in the introduction to Klein’s autobiography “Aman Hamashrukit” (“The Whistle Artist”).

Klein rose higher in world soccer than any other Israeli. Three World Cups, including some of the most important games in the tournament’s history; two Olympics; the Little World Cup, a prestigious 1972 tournament celebrating 150 years of Brazilian independence; and countless internationals.

He served in various roles in FIFA and the European governing body, UEFA. The sport’s greats are his personal friends, from Pelé to former FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

On March 29 Klein turns 82, yet he looks far younger than his age and remains impressively athletic. And he still remembers everything – even the name of every head of Bermuda’s referees’ association. He’s also a gentleman, who insisted: “If you come by train, tell me and I’ll pick you up.”

Klein also officiated between Italy and Argentina in 1978, and between Brazil and Italy in 1982, maybe the greatest game in history. He was a linesman in the wonderful final that year.

Still, England versus Brazil remains his favorite. “It had everything: importance, history, tremendous media interest, the top players,” Klein says. “And it was a wonderful game, a concert of soccer.”

Trembling close to history

Not that he doesn’t cherish the other games. His small apartment is heaving with photos and memorabilia, which he started collecting at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Other valuable mementoes he stores elsewhere. His collection includes pictures, flags, magazines, emblems, ties, patches, cups, whistles, balls and trophies (including one with the signatures engraved of the entire 1982 Italy team).

There’s the ball from England versus Brazil; like the others, it’s in a plastic supermarket bag. That’s right, the ball that Pelé and Moore, Tostao and Charlton kicked. The ball that Jairzinho sent to the back of the net and the one that Banks saved.

There’s the ball with the signatures of the world’s best players, from a game against the rest of the world marking a year since Argentina’s World Cup victory in 1978. There they are, the signatures of Zico, Ruud Krol, Michel Platini, Marco Tardelli, Emerson Leao and others.

There’s the ball from the 1982 final. And there’s the ball that many will say is the most historic, from the Brazil-Italy game that year.

Okay, I was already excited, but now my hands were trembling slightly, like Klein’s in 1970. To hold the ball with which Paulo Rossi scored a hat trick, with which Falcao leveled the score at 2-2, that keeper Dino Zoff stopped near the end of the game.

If soccer is a religion and the billions are its believers, I touched a holy arc.

Not everyone gets so excited. Two years ago Klein sought to donate his amazing collection to a certain institution, which declined. Klein refuses to give names.

Maybe it didn’t realize the magnitude of the trove. The balls were in a dusty bag at his daughter’s.

If not for the former publisher Mordi Alon, a curator who befriended Klein when he published his book, much of this treasure may have ended up in the garbage. With the help of Alon and his wife Bracha, Klein is putting his collection up for auction.

The lot is estimated to be worth about $370,000, including about $50,000 for the England versus Brazil ball and $40,000 for Brazil versus Italy. There has already been interest; an Italian historian has sent an email and a fax has arrived from Japan, which won the bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics.

If I had a spare $100,000 floating around I know what I’d do, but Klein doesn’t want the memorabilia sitting at home with a private collector. He wants the stuff in a museum so anybody can see it, including people not yet born in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

He has a warm spot young people. He continued to referee in youth games in Israel and abroad, including in the Special Olympics, long after he officially retired. If not for a knee operation in 2000, he’d still be treading the grass.

“A few months ago I took a train to Florence,” he says. “A kid of about 16 or 17 got up so I could sit down. I sat down, called him over, and showed him a photo of Brazil versus Italy. The kid didn’t believe it at first. He called his friends over. It warmed my heart.”

Handling the prima donnas

Klein was considered one of the world’s top referees in part because he was in such great shape and could get so close to the action. “Watch Jairzinho’s goal against Portugal in the last minute of the Little World Cup final,” he says. “I’m a meter away from him, not like today when the referees are outside the penalty box.”

Maybe most importantly, he was a referee with a presence, someone who could handle the big stars.

“A referee should first of all worry about the players’ well-being and health,” he says. “It’s no coincidence that the 1970 World Cup was the only one without any red cards, because it had the best referees ever.”

He doesn’t have many good things to say about today’s refereeing, whether in Israel or around the world. As a gentleman he doesn’t criticize anyone personally; he simply praises the great referees of yesteryear.

In Israel these are the late brothers Menachem and Moshe Ashkenazi. On the world stage he lauds England’s Jack Taylor, who refereed with him in 1970 and officiated the 1974 World Cup final. Then there’s Brazilian Arnaldo Cezar Coelho, who officiated with him in 1978 and 1982, including in the final where Klein was a linesman.

Incidentally, politics had much to do with preventing him from refereeing the final in Argentina 1978 or Spain 1982. But in 1982, the last time a final would have been replayed in the event of a tie after 120 minutes, Klein was slated to officiate the replay.

In any case, referees’ lack of authority nowadays irks him, as does the overreliance on linesmen. And then there are players who touch referees, and referees who take pains to explain things to players.

It’s enough to see the photo of Klein waving away the whining Giancarlo Antognoni in the Brazil game. That’s a referee the players respect.

But Brazilians still complain about the time Claudio Gentile tore Zico’s shirt while fouling him; they say Klein should have called a penalty shot.

“I was in Brazil a few years ago and the television network Globo chased me everywhere for four days .... They asked about Zico and Gentile all the time,” he says. “They forget there was an offsides and the linesman raised his flag.”

Klein, by the way, received a match rating of 9.2 – the highest ever for a referee in a World Cup game.

He thinks the lowering of referees’ retirement age (from 50 in his day to 48 and then 45) is a problem. He also wants to see the Hawk-Eye electronic ball-tracking system used. “There have been many mistakes in goals where the ball did or didn’t cross the line, for which teams were promoted or eliminated,” he notes.

But he’s against replays helping decide on fouls or offsides calls. He tells of a lesson in a course he once took; 30 World Cup referees were studying an incident. “Fifty percent thought it deserved a penalty and 50 percent thought it didn’t. And all of them were qualified referees.”

Either way, he’s admired around the world. “Beyond the refereeing, I’m proud of the number of friends I have everywhere,” he says.

In Israel, it took a while for a game to be held in his honor; finally Maccabi Haifa did it. The Netherlands beat the Greens to it. “I didn’t know that Klein was Dutch,” Yehoshua Sagi wrote at the time in Haaretz.

Still, it’s not too late to revive a suggestion by then-Knesset member, now president, Reuven Rivlin in 1991: Award Klein the Israel Prize.

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