Not many referees mete out justice on the pitch with their fists rather than their whistle. But as ALBERTO SALCEDO RAMOS discovers, one Colombian man was far from your ordinary official.
Guillermo Velásquez, aka ‘El Chato’ (‘Shorty’), must be the only football referee in the world whose professional experience includes flooring at least five players.
Neither Alberto Castronovo, Eduardo Luján Manera or any of the other footballers he punched during his career had any idea that before becoming a referee, their assailant had been a boxer.
Velásquez smiles and looks down at his two clenched fists. Then he holds them up towards me, as if to let me know that, despite his sixty-nine years, there are still traces of his former physical prowess in those thick knuckles.
He quickly clarifies that it wasn’t force that earned him respect – he wasn’t invincible – but the fact that he had a quick temper that would explode at the slightest sign of a shove, and pride that meant he couldn’t bear to be humiliated. If he had to referee again, he would penalise dirty tackling and cheating, just as before. And above all, he wouldn’t turn the other cheek so that some idiot could give him another whack, nor would he turn a blind eye so that some swine could spit at him for a second time, or punish with merely a card some foul-mouthed player who swore at him like a trooper, rather he would avenge every single offence.
El Chato believes the composure demanded of referees is hypocritical, and is related more to politics than law. As he sees it, a human being who gets kicked and is given the opportunity to retaliate instead of feigning politeness is less dangerous, because he gets it out of his system.
‘I didn’t go around the pitch doling out punches’, he says, ‘but when someone needed to be whacked, I whacked them, because otherwise I’d feel awful afterwards for not reacting like a man to being provoked. When you’ve got a character like mine, you have an urge to respond to attacks.’
I tell Velásquez that if we swapped justice for revenge we’d be back in the Stone Age, adding that if the referee blows his whistle and gives out a red card, it is precisely so that he doesn’t have to use a club.
‘That’s true,’ he admits, so fast I realise I'm not saying anything that hasn’t occurred to him before. ‘But it’s odd, don’t you think: football players are given a ball to kick around, and they end up trying to kick us around.’
I return to the fray, arguing that the day the law of ‘an eye for an eye’ rules on the pitch we’ll have more blood than goals. And El Chato repeats what he’s just said: ‘That’s true.’ Then, with a firm movement of his hands, he says that to avoid such a risk we must ask footballers to contest decisions good-naturedly rather than violently.
‘Why don’t we just ask referees not to hit the players?’
‘Well, I’ll give you the same answer I gave to a Brazilian reporter the day I sent Pelé off: it’s not nice answering a punch with a punch, but I still haven’t seen the clause in the rulebook that says referees have to let themselves be walloped.’
Guillermo Velásquez began to display a vocation for adjudicating as a teenager. When his parents argued, they would seek him out to decide who was in the right. When his brothers fought, only he was able to reconcile then. Very soon, his powers of discernment and sense of justice were famous in the family. Cousins, uncles and other more distant relatives came to him because they trusted the impartiality of his decisions.
Later on, when he played football at Deogracias Cardona secondary school in his native Pereira, he didn’t join in the half-time tactical chit-chat with his teammates, but instead headed off with the referee to scrutinize the rulebook.
When he eventually swapped his ball for a whistle he broke free from whatever mediocre fate awaited him as a player and regained the respect he had known as a family counsellor. He soon discovered that any satisfaction that came with applying the law had more to do with a sense of power than it did supposedly guaranteeing the well-being of fellow human beings. If a pitch is the entire universe and the players are all possible creatures, then the referee, who sees everything and judges everything, embodies a divine as opposed to human authority, an absolute presence that governs our actions without us even realising it. He and he alone is capable of stopping, with a mere flick of his hand, a striker in his tracks as he bears down on goal. He decides when to stop play and when to resume it, and in both cases he determines the exact spot where man and ball will meet again. Neither geniuses such as Maradona, nor bullies such as Chilavert were permitted to use the informal tú when speaking to Velásquez (they had to address him with almost laughable reverence: hands behind back, head down), and they had to accept his decisions no matter what, even if a ball landing twenty yards from the post was given as a goal. Like God, if the referee didn’t exist he would have to be invented. The players need him to forgive them their sins and help them reach heaven, a place they could never in a month of Sundays reach on their own.
From the off, El Chato enjoyed that sense of importance, which, according to him, almost all his colleagues enjoy, though they don't acknowledge it in public. This is why, as he sips his coffee, he now raises his voice to say that it’s not a crime, as some people claim, for the referee to be the main protagonist.
‘How can a judge who sentences a thug or prevents an accident not be the protagonist?’ he asks, his voice growing even louder as he adopts the tone of an orator. ‘You should know, as a journalist, that the problem isn’t having a reputation, it’s having a bad reputation.’
We’re sitting in the cafeteria of El Salitre Park in Bogotá. The people around us, many of them youngsters unaware of who he is, stare at him, and he sits back in his seat and soaks it up, proving yet again that he wasn’t born to be a wallflower.
Encouraged by his audience, Velásquez lists his achievements out loud: he was, he says without blushing, the referee who opened the international door to his Colombian colleagues; he took part in the Libertadores Cup from 1968 to 1982, refereed in four Olympic Games and was a linesman in one of the most beautiful games ever played, Italy versus Germany in the 1970 World Cup.
Then he tells me that he never had a drink the day before a job, that he always trained as if every day was a cup final and that, when he retired in December 1982, he had overseen more victories by smaller teams than any other referee. ‘And away teams, too,’ he adds.
‘The best thing of all’, he says, ‘is that I can swear before the whole country that I was never bent. When I got something wrong it was genuine, I never faked it. And not just because I’m honest, but because I always had respect for myself. I was too proud to want to look like an idiot.’
I ask him if hitting players, as he did, was a defect or a virtue.
El Chato smiles mischievously at me over his cup of coffee. He says nothing.
‘Oh, man, let’s not go there. Lay off me, will you?’
‘You don’t seem to have any regrets, judging by your smile.’
‘Look, I’m not proud of my temper. It got the better of me and that was my only fault.’
After a few seconds of silence, during which he seems remorseful, he finds an argument that renews his conviction.
‘You know what?’ he says, his face lighting up. ‘Being a fighter helped me avoid being corrupted. When you’re always laying down the law, for good or for ill, you can’t afford to have skeletons in your closet.’
At this point El Chato thinks a couple of clarifications are in order: when he hit a player it was invariably because that player had hit him first. And in any case, these were passing red mists that never went beyond the walls of the stadium. He does, however, maintain that it was absolutely necessary, in order to avoid bearing grudges, to thump his aggressor back.
It was in 1957, the year he made his debut refereeing in Colombia’s professional league, when the problems began. Alberto Castronovo, a player from Atlético Nacional club, took advantage of a melee to give Velásquez a nasty kick in the shin. The referee was writhing on the ground for several minutes. When he’d recovered from the blow he pretended he had no idea who had attacked him. Suddenly, when there was a corner, he saw, clear as day, his chance to retaliate. He calculated that for the next minute the spectators would all have their eyes on the player who was about to take the corner, and went and stood in the box next to Castronovo. Then he dealt him a right hook clean on the chin. Castronovo fell to the floor, but he was soon back on his feet, furious, and he began pounding at the referee, much to the surprise of the crowd. Several police officers leapt into action, preparing to remove the footballer by force.
‘Leave him please, officers’, said El Chato, in an authoritative voice. ‘Do me a favour and leave this gentleman on the pitch – he’s not been sent off!’
‘What do you mean he’s not been sent off, we saw him hit you!’
‘And didn’t you see me hit him? If Castronovo is going off, I'm going off too. But since the police aren’t in charge when there’s a ref around, I’ve decided that he’s not going off and nor am I, and that’s final.’
El Chato winks, and remarks that justice depends more on the common sense of the person applying it than it does laws written on pieces of paper. To illustrate his theory, he recalls the time that Miguel Angel Converti, the Millonarios striker, received a pass with his back to goal, in a derby against Santa Fe. Velásquez had blown for offside before Converti got the ball. But the player, who apparently hadn't heard the whistle, took the move to its logical conclusion: he controlled the ball on his chest, flicked it up with his left knee and leapt in the air – head falling back, feet lifting up – to perform a magnificent bicycle kick. The ball rocketed into the back of the net at an impossible angle and Converti raced over to the corner flag, his face turned to the sky, struggling free from his team mates who were trying to hug him, as if he believed his technical skills had brought him closer to the gods than his fellow athletes.
'If I'd known Converti would end the move the way he did,’ Velásquez says, 'I wouldn’t have given it offside. It was the only time I wanted to be wrong on the pitch, and believe me I regret getting it right as if it were a mistake. That's what I've been saying: according to the rules I acted correctly, but it wasn’t fair for me to steal such a gem from the spectators. Even the Santa Fe fans would have been happy if I’d given the goal.’
I ask Velásquez to make me a list of the players he hit and he says, apparently downcast, that ‘it’s not worth it.’
‘Because there weren’t that many, man. But seeing as you won’t let this go, you can say I once gave a black eye to Orlando Herrera, from Tolima, because he took things too far arguing about one of my decisions. And you know what happened in the next game I reffed in Ibague? The guy came to find me in my changing room and we walked out onto the pitch together with his arm over my shoulder. Isn’t that nice? If they hadn’t acknowledged I was being fair, they wouldn’t have forgiven me. I might have been brutal, but I was more human than loads of guys who acted like kittens, because I hit with my fists but I never killed anyone with my whistle.’
El Chato, who never stops boasting of his impartiality, claims that if we went back in time to Wednesday July 17, 1968, he'd send Pelé off again.
On that day, the Brazilian team Santos – considered the best in the world at the time – were playing a friendly against the Colombian squad that was to play in the Olympic Games in Mexico.
Very early on, Velásquez awarded a goal to Colombia that seemed offside. The Brazilians became hysterical and crowded round the referee. One of them, named Lima, was sent off. As he refused to leave the pitch, the police had to remove him. When they got to the athletics track surrounding the pitch, he broke free from the officers, returned to the pitch and kicked Velásquez. The ref responded with a punch to the stomach, which almost led to a mass brawl.
The game continued, with tensions running high, until the thirty-fifth minute of the first half when Pelé was shown the red card for appealing, in disrespectful fashion, a penalty that had been given against him. He appeared somewhat taken aback at first, but he quickly accepted the decision and started to walk off the pitch, a defiant, sarcastic expression on his face, like a monarch mocking the exile imposed upon him by a vassal. ‘That guy is crazy,’ Pelé repeated, again and again, in front of the columnist from El Espectador who was waiting on the athletics track.
At that moment the Santos players surrounded the referee.
‘Out of the twenty-eight men the Brazilians had in their squad,’ El Chato recalls, ‘twenty-five assaulted me. The only ones who didn’t hit me were the physio, the journalist and Pelé.’
When the sixty thousand spectators in El Campin stadium started to insult him loudly, demanding Pelé be sent back on, Velásquez felt belittled and devastated. When the directors of the Colombian Football Federation then decided the player should come back onto the pitch and the referee should leave – a unique event in the annals of sport – he recalled the old adage that in Colombia ‘it’s one rule for the rich, another for the poor.’ He adds that it's a good job Pelé never thought to rob a bank, ‘because we’d still be applauding it here.’
Hurt more by the public humiliation than the physical attack he'd suffered, El Chato filed criminal charges against the Brazilian team. He did it at the recommendation of Lisandro Martinez Zuniga, a Supreme Court judge, who visited him in the changing rooms after the game to offer him his services as a lawyer.
The Santos players remained in Colombia almost two days longer than expected, in a police station, and ended up having to pay eighteen thousand pesos [about £460 at the time] to Velásquez and provide him with written apologies before they were allowed to travel back to their country.
Years later, retired from football, Velásquez decided to try and meet up with Pelé. He understood, as he always had, that no matter the written laws, it was human contact he needed to clear his conscience. The King received him in Miami and even asked him out to lunch.
Now, I ask El Chato, what would have happened if Pelé had hit him when he sent him off, and Velásquez asks me, his face serious, to please not ask him such an unreasonable question.
'You’re going to end up pissing me off, you know,’ he adds.
‘I’m just speculating, that’s all.’
‘Well, in that case, let me answer you with a question. What do you think would have happened?’
ALBERTO SALCEDO RAMOS - @SalcedoRamos
Alberto Salcedo Ramos is one of Colombia's leading journalists and writers. His piece 'Queens Football' (like this one, translated by Rosalind Harvey) features in The Football Crónicas, a collection of football writing from Latin America published by Ragpicker Press.