Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved,
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.
– St Augustine
From this phrase grew the idea that became L’arbitro (The Referee), director Paolo Zucca’s first full-length feature.
Zucca, a Cagliari supporter, has produced a film that traverses grassroots football, corrupt referees, a shepherd’s vengeance and economic migrants, all the while lampooning Byron Aldemar Moreno Ruales.
Ah yes, Moreno, the Ecuadorian referee who many Italians hold responsible for Italy’s defeat in the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.
The Moreno who was suspended by the Ecuador FA later that year for adding an extra 13 minutes to the end of a game between Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito and Barcelona Sporting Club. Liga de Quito, down 2-3 after 90 minutes, scored two goals during time added on to secure an infamous victory.
The same Moreno who in 2010 was arrested at JFK Airport in New York with six kilograms of heroin in his underwear. Six kilograms. He pleaded guilty and served two years and two months of a two-and-a-half year sentence.
The film itself, shot in black and white, switches between rural Sardinia and the world of Cruciani, a top flight European referee.
On dusty Sardinian pitches, lowly Atletico Pabarile succumbs to another defeat, despite its coach’s half-time oration on the nature of the ball. (“This is air,” he says, holding a football before the team, “And air flies. Understand?”)
The team does not understand, and gets pumped by local rival Montecrastu. (Montecrastu’s leader applies a riding crop to his players at half-time, with better results than a discourse on what the ball may or may not be.)
The worlds of the high-flying referee and lowly Pabarile are set on a collision course when Cruciani – a hitherto devout and honest man – seeks advice from league officials on how he might be selected to referee a European final.
The arrival of the skilful Matzutzi, returned to the village of his birth after his family moved to Argentina, gives Pabarile new life … a Melbourne Heart-like resurrection.
L’arbitro portrays the corridors of European football power as a hotbed of cynicism and cronyism. But in this story, at least, the “Moreno” character is exposed as a cheat, and some form of justice is served. The justice that Italy was denied in South Korea in 2002 is carried out on screen.
A team is resurrected, a thief is damned and a thief is saved. And in a chilling final scene, vengeance is executed.