The official Italians blame for their World Cup exit has defended his decisions and now entered the world of politics. But not, as Ben Lyttleton writes, to good effect

Ecuadorean referee Byron Moreno took ad­vantage of a suspension recently to confront the critics that blamed him for Italy’s World Cup defeat to South Korea. Moreno appeared on RAI TV’s Stupido Hotel carrying a briefcase stuffed with bank-notes before claiming he was right to dismiss Francesco Totti and disallow a Damiano Tomassi golden goal in the sum­mer. “I don’t think I was the major cause of Italy’s World Cup exit, and I don’t need to apol­ogise,” said the man nicknamed El Just­iciero – The Sheriff – in his homeland. “I’ve always fought against dishonest players and dangerous play. After the Portugal v USA match I was marked 8.5 out of ten and I got an even better mark for the Italy v Korea match. The Italians were looking for excuses.”

Stupido presenter Jose Altafini responded by pouring a bucket of cold water over Moreno, who has been portrayed in Italian cartoons as a Korean robot. A town in Sicily has even nam­ed their public toilets after him. But the 33-year-old’s biggest misfortune was to enter Ecuadorean politics on his return from Korea.

Moreno, who averaged seven yellow cards and two reds per game in his last season in domestic football, had the perfect law-abiding image. Political parties wanted his endorsement and he agreed to join Party Prian, run by the “Berlusconi of the Andes”, banana mo­gul Alvaro Noboa. He stood for election for Qui­to city council under the slogan “Byron Mo­reno waves a red card to corruption”.

His campaign stuttered after September’s crucial league match between Liga de Quito and Barcelona, from the main provincial city of Guayaquil, ended in uproar. Moreno gave two controversial penalties, sent off two, disallowed a goal and then signalled for six minutes of injury time but played 12, allowing Quito to score two late goals to win 4-3.

Barcelona president Leonardo Bohrer led the calls for his suspension: “It’s not ethical for him to continue being a referee, especially in a province in which he is a candidate. Liga supporters are voters in his province.” Moreno denied that he added on the time to secure votes. “For me, a minute is a minute, no less,” he said after the disciplinary hearing at which he was not allowed to defend himself. “They banned me [for 20 matches] because on my match report I wrote down the goals as being scored in the 89th and 90th minutes. That’s what we always do. It seems that this wasn’t the way it should have been done for this game. If someone wants to bring you down, it’s easy.”

The Ecuadorean FA also failed to alert Mo­reno to a FIFA letter calling for his views on World Cup officials. When he received the cor­respondence, the date of the hearing had pas­sed. “Here, they just do what they want,” he sighed. He was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Moreno has moved his family to a secret location to avoid extremist Barcelona fans who pelted his previous home with bricks. He has started legal action against Bohrer and vowed to continue refereeing when his ban expires. “I still want to referee; somebody’s got to stand up for the little people. I have always tried to do the right thing. Refereeing is a way for me to battle against violence and injustice, to work against all cheating. I’m sure that in time my name will be cleared and justice will be done.”

His flirtation with politics has done Mo­reno more harm than good. He lost the city council election and has been alienated from foot­ball. Ecuadorean FA secretary-general Fran­cisco Acosta Espinoza explained: “This gentleman’s problem is that he got involved in politics. It’s not forbidden but it is incompatible. And he’s ended up being excluded by both worlds.”

Refereeing, unfortunately, is in Moreno’s blood. His father was a refereeing instructor and his nine-year-old daughter Mishele has vowed to follow in his footsteps. She said: “I would love to be able to call the police so that all the bad men will be put in prison for all things they’ve done to Daddy.” She sounds just the right type.

From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month

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