A VERTICAL TAKE-OFF.
INCREDIBLE STORY
OF NESTOR PITANA
11
Alexander Golovin takes a closer look at how a school PE teacher from a remote region of Argentina became the man in the middle at the 2018 FIFA World Cup final.
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team rather than opponents France. Even Zlatko Dalić could not keep calm at the press conference: "I don't like commenting on the referee's performance, but I'll say one thing: you don't give that kind of penalty in the World Cup final."

While that was perhaps an understandable reaction, everyone could see it was virtually a stonewall penalty: the ball not only hit the hand of Ivan Perišić but also changed direction radically. His hand was not even held close to his body, rather moving towards the ball, giving the referee no other choice but to award a penalty, aided by the VAR system, which showed the decision was correct.

Like all referees, Pitana is no stranger to criticism – some of which can be merited. Two months before the World Cup, he had possibly the worst match of his career in a routine Copa Argentina fixture between Estudiantes and Chacarita Juniors, the kind of game he had refereed many times. But this particular match in April became something of a personal nightmare for Pitana. First, he awarded an absurd penalty against the hosts for handball, even though the ball only struck the defender's body. He also failed to notice a Chacarita player was in possession of the ball one metre out of play. He then capped a day to forget by allowing Chacarita to score a second goal from an offside position.
Néstor Pitana was
hoping to see Argentina
reach the final and
MAKE HIM INELIGIBLE
TO REFEREE IT
he referee for the final was Néstor…" His surname tailed off as the announcer's voice was drowned out by a roar across the Luzhniki Stadium. The Croatian fans could not keep silent. It was as though they thought it was him, Argentinian referee Néstor Pitana, who had beaten their beloved
Argentina has no VAR system so the referee could only watch these incidents again afterwards on TV. "It would be foolish to deny that I made a mistake," he said, apologising to the fans. As a result, Pitana and his assistants were stood down for one round of the championship, considered a severe punishment in South America. All the more so since it had already been announced that Pitana would be one of the six referees to represent the continent at the biggest sporting event on earth.
he referee for the final was Néstor…" His surname tailed off as the announcer's voice was drowned out by a roar across the Luzhniki Stadium. The Croatian fans could not keep silent. It was as though they thought it was him, Argentinian referee Néstor Pitana, who had beaten their beloved team rather than opponents France. Even Zlatko Dalić could not keep calm at the press conference: "I don't like commenting on the referee's performance, but I'll say one thing: you don't give that kind of penalty in the World Cup final."

While that was perhaps an understandable reaction, everyone could see it was virtually a stonewall penalty: the ball not only hit the hand of Ivan Perišić but also changed direction radically. His hand was not even held close to his body, rather moving towards the ball, giving the referee no other choice but to award a penalty, aided by the VAR system, which showed the decision was correct.

Like all referees, Pitana is no stranger to criticism – some of which can be merited. Two months before the World Cup, he had possibly the worst match of his career in a routine Copa Argentina fixture between Estudiantes and Chacarita Juniors, the kind of game he had refereed many times. But this particular match in April became something of a personal nightmare for Pitana. First, he awarded an absurd penalty against the hosts for handball, even though the ball only struck the defender's body. He also failed to notice a Chacarita player was in possession of the ball one metre out of play. He then capped a day to forget by allowing Chacarita to score a second goal from an offside position.
The referee for the final was Néstor…" His surname tailed off as the announcer's voice was drowned out by a roar across the Luzhniki Stadium. The Croatian fans could not keep silent. It was as though they thought it was him, Argentinian referee Néstor Pitana, who had beaten their beloved team rather than opponents France. Even Zlatko Dalić could not keep calm at the press conference: "I don't like commenting on the referee's performance, but I'll say one thing: you don't give that kind of penalty in the World Cup final."

While that was perhaps an understandable reaction, everyone could see it was virtually a stonewall penalty: the ball not only hit the hand of Ivan Perišić but also changed direction radically. His hand was not even held close to his body, rather moving towards the ball, giving the referee no other choice but to award a penalty, aided by the VAR system, which showed the decision was correct.

Like all referees, Pitana is no stranger to criticism – some of which can be merited. Two months before the World Cup, he had possibly the worst match of his career in a routine Copa Argentina fixture between Estudiantes and Chacarita Juniors, the kind of game he had refereed many times. But this particular match in April became something of a personal nightmare for Pitana. First, he awarded an absurd penalty against the hosts for handball, even though the ball only struck the defender's body. He also failed to notice a Chacarita player was in possession of the ball one metre out of play. He then capped a day to forget by allowing Chacarita to score a second goal from an offside position.
Argentina has no VAR system so the referee could only watch these incidents again afterwards on TV. "It would be foolish to deny that I made a mistake," he said, apologising to the fans. As a result, Pitana and his assistants were stood down for one round of the championship, considered a severe punishment in South America. All the more so since it had already been announced that Pitana would be one of the six referees to represent the continent at the biggest sporting event on earth.
Néstor Pitana was hoping to see Argentina reach the final andMAKE HIM INELIGIBLE TO REFEREE IT
Pitana's rise to the top came relatively quickly, after becoming a referee at the age of 31 in 2006. As a child his father opposed any notion of football for the young Néstor. "Have you gone mad?" his dad, who was a haulier with no interest in football, declared when asked if he would buy his son a ball.

His undying wish was for the child to follow in his footsteps so that he could see the country instead of spending a lifetime in his village of just 3,000 people. But such plans were disrupted when the boy's uncle stepped in and gave Néstor the football he craved while his dad was away hauling. Néstor started to run off and play with the boys in the neighbourhood, though from a young age he enjoyed imagining himself as a commentator.

The childhood hobby turned into a genuine passion, with Pitana soon taking part in regional competitions. Then he switched to basketball for a time, his 1.93 metre frame and nickname of Big Foot perhaps explaining his flirtation with the orange ball. In fact, he was good at it and managed to compete at provincial level, only to have a change of heart and return to football. He never thought of turning professional, however, which is why he went to university and later became a Physical Education teacher. Perhaps not everyone's dream profession, but what other opportunities were there for someone who had spent his entire childhood playing sport in the village?
Pitana became better
ACQUAINTED WITH
THE VAR SYSTEM

than any other referee
He still remembers his university years with a warm glow, even though it was a really hard time for a boy from a poor family. To make ends meet, he took all kinds of jobs, including that of a nightclub security guard.

In the early 2000s, things began to look up as Pitana found a sustainable teaching job at a regular school. Football was still his number one passion, however, so his friends suggested he try refereeing. During classes, Néstor would watch the 2006 World Cup in Germany in snatches. Seeing the controversy of Valentin Ivanov's record number of cards, the mistakes of Massimo Busacca and the legendary final in which his compatriot and another PE teacher, Horacio Elizondo, sent off Zinedine Zidane made up Pitana's mind. This is what he wanted to do, and he immediately enrolled in a refereeing course. It was the start of a burgeoning career.

Later that same year, he graduated and quickly began to receive assignments to officiate at regional league matches. A year later, at 32, Pitana refereed his first top-flight fixture, and in 2010 he became a FIFA referee and took charge of an international club fixture in the Copa Libertadores. It got even bigger for him in 2012, when he refereed a World Cup qualifier between Colombia and Peru. Then came the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Copa America duties and a River Plate–Boca Juniors derby in which he famously showed three red cards. In 2017, he was also voted Best Argentinian referee.

So, by the time he got to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, Pitana had refereed 341 games, had brandished 1,636 yellow and 107 red cards, and awarded 77 penalties. The five matches in Russia added 15+0+3 to those statistics. And while these figures confirm Pitana as a hard taskmaster, off the pitch he is famously kind and even sentimental. In 2015, just days before his second marriage – to supermodel Romina Ortega – he publicly confessed his love for her on the pitch before a match. "My dear, I'm sending you a big kiss. You'll become my wife this Sunday. I love you so much and just want us to be happy," Néstor said on camera before taking charge of Racing–Rosario.

Pitana's Twitter account is another of his passions. He has used it to support colleagues, to make a positive comment on VAR and to urge Lionel Messi to change his mind about retiring from the national team. Sometimes, Pitana has even taken to Twitter to explain a refereeing decision he has made. During the World Cup, Néstor even kept a microblog in three languages - Spanish, English and Russian - with the help of an online translator, providing his 30,000 followers with plenty to enjoy. "It's a great honour for me to be called upon to referee the opening match. I hope I handle this assignment well," he wrote a couple of days before the big kick-off.

After the tournament, Pitana flew back to his home village, where he used to play football as a child. Then he took a break before the new season to think about the future.

When he returned to his old school, where he was a PE teacher 12 years before the World Cup, he took selfies with the boys, proud in the knowledge that he was the second Argentinian to referee the final. And only the third person in history to take charge of the opening and final matches at the same tournament.

When he looked at the faded pictures of 2006, he had to pinch himself to realise just how far he had come.
Pitana's rise to the top came relatively quickly, after becoming a referee at the age of 31 in 2006. As a child his father opposed any notion of football for the young Néstor. "Have you gone mad?" his dad, who was a haulier with no interest in football, declared when asked if he would buy his son a ball.

His undying wish was for the child to follow in his footsteps so that he could see the country instead of spending a lifetime in his village of just 3,000 people. But such plans were disrupted when the boy's uncle stepped in and gave Néstor the football he craved while his dad was away hauling. Néstor started to run off and play with the boys in the neighbourhood, though from a young age he enjoyed imagining himself as a commentator.

The childhood hobby turned into a genuine passion, with Pitana soon taking part in regional competitions. Then he switched to basketball for a time, his 1.93 metre frame and nickname of Big Foot perhaps explaining his flirtation with the orange ball. In fact, he was good at it and managed to compete at provincial level, only to have a change of heart and return to football. He never thought of turning professional, however, which is why he went to university and later became a Physical Education teacher. Perhaps not everyone's dream profession, but what other opportunities were there for someone who had spent his entire childhood playing sport in the village?
He still remembers his university years with a warm glow, even though it was a really hard time for a boy from a poor family. To make ends meet, he took all kinds of jobs, including that of a nightclub security guard.

In the early 2000s, things began to look up as Pitana found a sustainable teaching job at a regular school. Football was still his number one passion, however, so his friends suggested he try refereeing. During classes, Néstor would watch the 2006 World Cup in Germany in snatches. Seeing the controversy of Valentin Ivanov's record number of cards, the mistakes of Massimo Busacca and the legendary final in which his compatriot and another PE teacher, Horacio Elizondo, sent off Zinedine Zidane made up Pitana's mind. This is what he wanted to do, and he immediately enrolled in a refereeing course. It was the start of a burgeoning career.

Later that same year, he graduated and quickly began to receive assignments to officiate at regional league matches. A year later, at 32, Pitana refereed his first top-flight fixture, and in 2010 he became a FIFA referee and took charge of an international club fixture in the Copa Libertadores. It got even bigger for him in 2012, when he refereed a World Cup qualifier between Colombia and Peru. Then came the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Copa America duties and a River Plate–Boca Juniors derby in which he famously showed three red cards. In 2017, he was also voted Best Argentinian referee.

So, by the time he got to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, Pitana had refereed 341 games, had brandished 1,636 yellow and 107 red cards, and awarded 77 penalties. The five matches in Russia added 15+0+3 to those statistics. And while these figures confirm Pitana as a hard taskmaster, off the pitch he is famously kind and even sentimental. In 2015, just days before his second marriage – to supermodel Romina Ortega – he publicly confessed his love for her on the pitch before a match. "My dear, I'm sending you a big kiss. You'll become my wife this Sunday. I love you so much and just want us to be happy," Néstor said on camera before taking charge of Racing–Rosario.

Pitana's Twitter account is another of his passions. He has used it to support colleagues, to make a positive comment on VAR and to urge Lionel Messi to change his mind about retiring from the national team. Sometimes, Pitana has even taken to Twitter to explain a refereeing decision he has made. During the World Cup, Néstor even kept a microblog in three languages - Spanish, English and Russian - with the help of an online translator, providing his 30,000 followers with plenty to enjoy. "It's a great honour for me to be called upon to referee the opening match. I hope I handle this assignment well," he wrote a couple of days before the big kick-off.

After the tournament, Pitana flew back to his home village, where he used to play football as a child. Then he took a break before the new season to think about the future.

When he returned to his old school, where he was a PE teacher 12 years before the World Cup, he took selfies with the boys, proud in the knowledge that he was the second Argentinian to referee the final. And only the third person in history to take charge of the opening and final matches at the same tournament.

When he looked at the faded pictures of 2006, he had to pinch himself to realise just how far he had come.
Pitana became better ACQUAINTED WITH THE VAR SYSTEM than any other referee