A Brazilian referee can claim to have played a key role in the astonishing rise of English club football.
From today’s perspective it seems absurd, but in the 1980s it was common to hear that the game in England was dying. The launch of the Premier League in 1992 has, of course, proved to be a massive success, with its clubs gaining followers and attracting attention from all around the globe.
This process was clearly given a helping hand by Italia 90. Most of the planet remembers it as a dull World Cup, with the lowest goals per game ratio ever. Indeed, in the wake of the competition FIFA were panicked into a crackdown on the sliding tackle in order to encourage attacking play.
English memories are different, though. Bobby Robson’s team reached the semi final – for the first and only time since the 1966 triumph – and were also involved in some of the most gripping games of the tournament.
The 0-0 draw against Holland, the 1-0 second round win over Belgium with the goal coming in the last minute of extra time, the 3-2 comeback against Cameroon and, of course, the heartache of defeat on penalties after a 1-1 draw with the Germans – all these games are emblazoned on the national psyche.
They were tense and gripping, and also featured some skilful play from a charismatic English side – spearheaded, of course, by young midfielder Paul Gascoigne, appointed by none less than Diego Maradona as his likely successor as the world’s best player.
All of this made for a wonderful soap opera, which enthralled the nation and made football fashionable again. Lapsed fans remembered why they used to love the game, and new followers, especially from the middle class, were won over. And one of, if not the, stand out moments came in the semi final.
Having been booked in an earlier game, against the Germans Gascoigne was awarded a yellow card which would keep him out of the final if England won through. All the emotions were on show, in colourful close up.
Gascoigne fought in vain to hold back the tears. He cried for himself, and then tried to pull himself together and help his team-mates over the line. It is a famous, and significant moment in English football. And the man who brought it about was the referee from Brazil, Jose Roberto Wright.
Many years later, in a stadium in Rio, I told Wright how important his yellow card had been. He was stunned. The veteran had no idea that a routine decision had led to such ramifications. He knows more about it now, though. During the last World Cup, the English press chased him for his memories from 1990.
Now 71, Wright continues to be a grand old man of Brazilian refereeing. The son of a notable radio entrepreneur, he worked for years as a TV pundit, and then advised the Brazilian FA. In the sports daily ‘Lance!’ he recently analysed the tweaks made to be the laws of the game by the International Board.
In general he is in favour of the changes – especially the one made to Law 8, which now stipulates that the ball does not have to be played forward from the kick-off. “I think this one will be used a lot,” says Wright. “Being able to play the ball backwards will help a good player to launch an attack with a pass.”
He is also in favour of the modification to Rule 4, where a player no longer needs the authorisation of the referee to leave the field and change equipment. “We will have more dynamism,” he thinks. He applauds the change to Rule 3, where a penalty is now awarded if a goal is prevented by a substitute or a player who has been sent off. “Good,” he says. “All of those on the sheet are part of the spectacle. Before it was a drop ball. Now there is a punishment.”
But he is not impressed by the end of the so-called triple punishment, where there is no longer a penalty, automatic red card and a suspension if a clear goal scoring opportunity is denied inside the area. “They have complicated a situation that was well defined,” he says, “because a serious or violent foul is a red card offence. And giving a yellow card for a foul that prevents a goal is making the punishment weaker. This will cause lots of confusion.”
But few of the decisions will prove as significant as one yellow card that Jose Roberto Wright awarded 26 years ago.