As an avid football pundit, I’ve watched countless matches and have witnessed some of the best, and worst, referees in action.
Who would want their job? as being a referee can be a thankless job.
They are criticised by players, managers, and fans for their “wrong” decisions if they don’t favour your team. But there are some referees who stand out from the rest – those who consistently make fair and accurate calls on the pitch.
I take a look at the top 10 best football referees in the world (in my opinion) and will explore their history, the big games they’ve officiated and any controversies.
I have chosen them based on their track record of making fair decisions on the field. Whether it’s awarding penalties or handling situations involving red cards, they always seem to make rational decisions.
Pierluigi Collina is widely regarded as one of the greatest football referees of all time. He was born in Bologna (Italy) on February 13, 1960, and began his career as a referee in 1977 at the age of just 17.
Throughout his career, Collina was known for his commanding presence on the pitch, ability to communicate effectively with players and coaches, and unfailing impartiality. He was highly respected by players, managers, and fans alike and was often called upon to officiate high-profile matches, both at the domestic and international level.
Collina’s most significant moment as a referee came in 2002 when he was selected to officiate the final of the FIFA World Cup between Brazil and Germany. The match, which was held in Yokohama, Japan, was internationally viewed as one of the most highly-anticipated and closely-watched games in football history. Collina’s performance on the day was widely praised.
Throughout his career, Collina was recognized for his exceptional abilities as a referee, receiving numerous awards and accolades. In 1999, he was named the Serie A Referee of the Year, and in 2000, he was awarded the FIFA World Referee of the Year award – a distinction he would go on to win for five consecutive years.
In addition to his referee duties, Collina was also involved in numerous initiatives to promote fair play and improve the standard of football refereeing. He was a member of the UEFA Referees Committee, which was responsible for selecting referees for UEFA competitions, and was also involved in the development of VAR (video assistant referee) technology. VAR is now widely used in football to review and correct decisions made by referees on the pitch.
Despite retiring from refereeing in 2005, Collina remains one of the most respected persons in football, and his name is still synonymous with the highest sporting standards in terms of professionalism and impartiality. He continues to work as a pundit and commentator, sharing his insights and expertise with fans around the world.
Despite being a referee, Collina was so well known and respected in the football world that he was even on the cover of Pro Evolution Soccer 3 and 4 football games.
Howard Webb is a former English professional football referee, widely considered one of the best football referees of his generation. Born on July 14, 1971, in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, England, Webb began his career as a police officer before becoming a referee in 1993. He retired from refereeing in 2014 and is currently the Director of Referees for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
Webb officiated his first Premier League game in 2003 and became a FIFA-listed referee in 2005. He quickly established himself as one of the greatest referees in the world, earning praise for his calm demeanour, clear communication, and excellent decision-making skills.
His biggest moment came in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, where he refereed the match between Spain and the Netherlands. Despite the high stakes and intense pressure, Webb delivered a flawless performance, correctly awarding a penalty to Spain and sending off Dutch player Johnny Heitinga.
Webb’s impressive performances continued throughout his career, earning him numerous accolades and awards. In 2010, he was named the “Referee of the Year” at the FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony. He was also awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2011 for his services to football.
Off the pitch, Webb is known for his work promoting refereeing and improving the standards of officiating worldwide. He is an advocate for adopting technology in football, supporting the introduction of goal-line technology and video assistant referees (VAR) to help referees make more accurate decisions.
In addition to his work as a referee and referee educator, Webb is also an accomplished author. In 2016, he published his autobiography, “The Man in the Middle: The Autobiography of the World Cup Final Referee“, ” chronicling his journey from a police officer to one of the most respected referees in football history.
Overall, Howard Webb is widely regarded for his calm demeanour, clear communication, and excellent decision-making skills. His performances on the biggest stages of world football, combined with his work to promote the development of referees, make him an important figure in the sport’s history.
George Courtney is a retired football referee from England and was regarded as one of the best referees of his time. Born in 1942 in Spennymoor, County Durham, Courtney began his career as a referee in 1966, officiating in amateur and non-league football matches before progressing to the Football League.
Courtney was one of the most experienced referees in England at the time, officiating in over 1,000 matches during his career. He was also among the most respected and trusted referees, with a reputation for being fair, impartial, and consistent in his decisions.
One of the highlights of Courtney’s career came in 1984 when he was appointed to referee the European Cup final between Liverpool and Roma at the Stadio Olimpico (Rome). The match ended in a 1-1 draw after extra time, and Liverpool won the trophy after winning 4-2 on penalties. Courtney’s performance in the final was widely praised, with many commentators noting his calmness and control over the players.
In addition to his impressive domestic and European football record, Courtney was also selected to officiate at two World Cup tournaments: the 1986 tournament in Mexico and the 1990 one in Italy. He was the first English referee to be appointed to achieve this.
Courtney retired from refereeing in 1994 and went on to work as a referee assessor and mentor for young referees. He also became an advocate for fair play and sportsmanship in football and was a frequent speaker on the topic.
Throughout his career, George Courtney was widely respected and admired by players, coaches, and fans alike. He was regarded as a model of consistency and integrity, and his legacy in English football history continues to be felt today.
Nicola Rizzoli is a retired Italian football referee who was deemed one of the best in the world during his career. He was born on October 5, 1971, in Mirandola, Italy, and began refereeing in 1994 at the age of 23. Rizzoli’s career as a referee spanned 19 years, during which he officiated some of the biggest matches in world football.
Rizzoli made his Serie A debut in 2002 and became one of Italy’s most respected referees. He was appointed to officiate his first international match in 2007 and quickly established himself as one of the top referees in Europe. He was selected to officiate at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, where he refereed four matches, including the quarter-final between the Netherlands and Brazil.
Rizzoli’s performance at the 2010 tournament was praised, and he was subsequently appointed to officiate the UEFA Champions League final in 2013 between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. He was also selected to officiate the 2014 FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, which was considered the pinnacle of his career.
Throughout his career, Rizzoli was known for his calm and authoritative demeanour on the field. He was respected by players, coaches, and fans alike for his fair and consistent approach to refereeing. He was also known for his excellent physical condition, which allowed him to keep up with the game’s pace and make accurate decisions.
Rizzoli retired from refereeing in 2017 at the age of 45. He had officiated over 200 matches in Serie A and 46 matches in the UEFA Champions League, and numerous international matches. Since retiring, Rizzoli has become a commentator for Italian television and is involved in various initiatives to promote fair play and sportsmanship in football.
Rizzoli’s performances at major tournaments such as the World Cup and the Champions League final have cemented his place as one of the top 10 referees ever.
Ravshan Irmatov is an Uzbekistan football referee who is seen as one of the top referees in Asia and the world. He has been refereeing international matches since 2003 and has officiated at several major international tournaments, including the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, the 2011 and 2015 AFC Asian Cups, and the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Born on August 9, 1977, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Irmatov began his refereeing career at 21. He first gained recognition when he was selected to officiate the 2008 AFC Champions League final, becoming the first Uzbek referee to do so. He was later appointed as the referee for the 2008 Olympic Games final between Argentina and Nigeria, where he made several controversial decisions that were heavily criticized by the Nigerian team.
Despite the controversies, Irmatov continued to impress at international level and was selected to officiate at the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He refereed the tournament’s opening match between South Africa and Mexico and the quarter-final match between Uruguay and Ghana – which was also marred by a controversial decision.
In the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Irmatov became the first referee to officiate three matches in a single World Cup, and he was also chosen to referee the third-place match between the Netherlands and Brazil. He received praise for his handling of the game, which was a highly competitive encounter that saw several yellow cards and a red card.
Irmatov’s impressive performances have earned him several awards and recognition, including the AFC Referee of the Year award in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014. He was also named the IFFHS World’s Best Referee in 2013 and 2014, becoming the first referee from Asia to win the award.
Off the pitch, Irmatov is a trained teacher and speaks several languages, including Uzbek, Russian, and English. He is also involved in charity work and has donated money to schools and hospitals in Uzbekistan.
In summary, Ravshan Irmatov is one of the most successful and respected football referees in Asia and the world. He has achieved numerous milestones and awards during his career and is admired for his professionalism, fairness, and impartiality on the pitch.
Mark Clattenburg is a former English professional football referee who has officiated in some of the biggest football matches. Born on March 13, 1975, in Consett, County Durham, Clattenburg first became a referee in 1990 when he was just 15 years old.
Clattenburg began his professional refereeing career in the Football League in 2000 and was promoted to the Premier League in 2004. Over the years, he has become one of the most respected referees in the world, known for his authoritative style and calm demeanour on the pitch.
Some of Clattenburg’s most notable matches include the 2012 Olympic Games final, the 2014 UEFA Champions League final, and the 2016 UEFA Euro final. He has also officiated in several major domestic matches, including the FA Cup final, the League Cup final, and the Community Shield.
Despite his success, Clattenburg has also faced controversy during his career. In 2012, he was accused of using inappropriate language towards Chelsea midfielder John Obi-Mikel during a Premier League match. Clattenburg was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the incident still caused a media storm and put a spotlight on the issue of racism in football.
Clattenburg resigned from his position as a Premier League referee in 2017 to take up a role as head of referees in Saudi Arabia. In 2019, he returned to Europe to become the head of refereeing for the Greek Super League.
Overall, Mark Clattenburg is viewed as one of the best referees of his generation, known for his ability to remain calm under pressure and confidently make tough decisions. His career has spanned over two decades, and his contributions to football will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Kim Milton Nielsen
Kim Milton Nielsen is a retired Danish football referee noted as one of the best referees in the world during his career. Born on August 3, 1960, in Denmark, Nielsen became a full-time referee in 1991 and quickly made a name for himself with his firm and consistent decision-making.
Nielsen’s career highlights include officiating at three World Cup tournaments (1998, 2002, 2006), two European Championships (1996, 2000), and the 2000 Olympic Games. He was also selected to referee the 1999 Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. This game is considered one of the greatest finals in the competition’s history!
Nielsen was known for his strict and authoritative approach to refereeing. Still, he was also respected for his ability to communicate well with players and his willingness to let the game flow whenever possible.
He was particularly admired for his handling of the infamous “Battle of Nuremberg” match between Portugal and the Netherlands at the World Cup in 2006, in which he showed a record-breaking 16 yellow cards and four red cards.
After retiring from refereeing in 2005, Nielsen worked as a technical advisor for FIFA and UEFA and also served as a TV pundit for Danish and international football matches. He was inducted into the Danish Football Hall of Fame in 2007 – and was named the best referee in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics in 2001, 2002, and 2003.
Overall, Kim Milton Nielsen earned his spot in the top 10 best football in history, and his contributions to the sport have helped shape the way the game is officiated today.
Cüneyt Çakır is a Turkish professional football referee who is looked on as one of the best referees in the world. He has officiated in some of the biggest matches, including the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup.
Born on November 23, 1976, in Istanbul, Turkey, Çakır became a football referee in 2001. He quickly established himself as one of the most promising referees in Turkey, and in 2006 he was promoted to the FIFA International Referee list. Since then, he has gone on to referee many high-profile matches in domestic and international competitions.
Çakır has officiated in several UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches, including the 2015 and 2019 Champions League finals. He has also refereed in several FIFA World Cup matches, including the 2014 and 2018 editions. In addition, he has officiated in the UEFA European Championship and the FIFA Confederations Cup.
One of Çakır’s most notable performances was during the 2012 UEFA Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea. During the match, Çakır made several controversial decisions, including sending off Chelsea captain John Terry for kneeing Barcelona player Alexis Sánchez in the back. Despite the controversy, Çakır’s performance was generally well-received, and he was praised for his control of the match.
Çakır is known for his calm and authoritative presence on the field. He is respected by players and coaches alike for his fairness and consistency. In addition, he is known for his excellent fitness levels and ability to keep up with the game’s pace.
Off the field, Çakır is a businessman who owns a construction company. He is also involved in several charitable organizations in Turkey.
In conclusion, Cüneyt Çakır is judged as one of the greatest referees in football. His consistent and fair performances on the field have earned him the respect of players, coaches, and fans. His presence in any match is a sign of quality, and he continues to be a leading figure in football refereeing.
Anders Frisk is a retired Swedish football referee who was counted as a superb referee during his active career. He was born on February 18, 1963, in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Frisk began his career as a referee in 1982 when he was only 19 years old. He was appointed as an international referee in 1991 and officiated his first international match in 1993.
During his career, Frisk was known for his excellent fitness, calm demeanour, and ability to make difficult decisions in high-pressure situations. He was also a proponent of using technology to assist referees in making important decisions, such as the introduction of goal-line technology in 2012.
Frisk officiated numerous high-profile matches during his career, including the 2003 UEFA Champions League final between AC Milan and Juventus and the Euro 2004 quarter-final match between Portugal and England.
In 2005, Frisk announced his retirement from refereeing after receiving death threats following a controversial Champions League match between Barcelona and Chelsea. The match saw Chelsea’s Didier Drogba receive a red card for confronting Frisk, leading to the referee’s decision to abandon the game due to safety concerns.
After retiring, Frisk advocated for using technology in football officiating and served as a UEFA referee observer. He was also a member of the UEFA Referees Committee and the Swedish Referees Committee.
Overall, Anders Frisk is remembered as one of the outstanding referees in football history, with his calm and composed approach to the game making him a role model for future referees.
Manuel Díaz Vega
Manuel Díaz Vega was a Spanish football referee born in Granada, Spain, on August 13, 1951. He began his refereeing career in the 1970s and soon rose to become one of the top referees in Spain. He officiated many important matches throughout his career, both in Spain and internationally.
Vega was known for his strict approach to refereeing and was highly respected for his professionalism and fairness on the pitch. He was known for his ability to keep control of games even in the most challenging circumstances.
One of the most notable matches that Vega refereed was the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. He was universally praised for his performance in the match, which Manchester United won 2-1 in dramatic fashion with two goals in injury time.
Vega also officiated in several other high-profile matches, including the 1998 World Cup, the 1992 European Championship, and the 1995 Copa del Rey Final. He retired from refereeing in 2001, having built a reputation as one of the best in the history of Spanish football.
After his retirement, Vega worked as a football analyst on Spanish television, providing expert analysis and commentary on the game. He was popular with players, managers, and fans alike and remains one of the most highly regarded referees in the history of Spanish football.
Who is and who isn’t the best referee of all time is subjective and can depend on individual opinions.
However, the referees mentioned above are commonly regarded as some of the best in the sport’s history due to their excellent decision-making abilities, calm and authoritative presence on the pitch, and experience officiating in high-profile matches.
Do you think there a some who shouldn’t be on this top 10? Or have I missed a stand-out football referee?
Let me know.