If any referee deserves to take charge of this year’s World Cup Final in the Yokohama International stadium then that man is Pierluigi Collina.

For the past five years he has been considered the world No 1 by the powers that be and, perhaps even more importantly, by the players. Collina’s only problem in picking up the biggest matches is one of the very factors that enhances his profile – he is Italian.

Appointing referees at international soccer’s showcase events has become such a delicate political minefield that referees from the most successful countries miss the big occasions because their national teams progress instead, and any potential accusations of bias have to be averted.

If Collina, 42, is to referee the 2002 Final, he needs his fellow countrymen to go out in the first round – clearing his path for the later stages in what will be his last World Cup.

Not that Collina thinks of it in such negative terms. As he says: “Being chosen to referee not only at a World Cup but at any event is my reward for a lot of hard work and all the sacrifices. According to Italian rules, I can referee at top level for another three years, which could also take in the European Championship and Olympic Games in 2004. So this World Cup is hardly the finish line.”

Each World Cup is used by FIFA to focus on a particular aspect of refereeing. Most famously, it was red and yellow cards in 1970 in Mexico, and a crackdown on the tackle from behind and feigning of injuries at USA94. Collina believes, probably with more than a little inside knowledge, that the focus in South Korea and Japan will be on violent play in general – though he is always cautiously diplomatic about his own standpoint.

“My job is not to change the game but make it work to everyone’s satisfaction,” he says. “But the priority must be to protect the most skilful footballers from violent play and to crack down on diving. So far, I think the relevant committees of FIFA and UEFA have done agood job.”

He is also protective towards fellow officials who find themselves in the eye of the action replay storm whendealing with over-the-top violence on the pitch. Any decision is a three-in-one challenge as far as Collina is concerned.

“First, referees have to pay enormous attention to every challenge that could cause physical injury,” he says. “It’s not only about whether a player might pick up an injury; it’s also about the way the referee sees the incident and how quickly he has reacted. But the responsibility also belongs to the players, who must educate themselves in how they play the game out of respect for their opponents and for themselves. In Italy we’ve tried for several years now to educate players about the risks of violent play. I think things are improving. Certainly we’re seeing fewer injuries from violent play.”

Collina does not subscribe to the apologist theory that paying fans have a right to express their opinions any way they choose. He proved the point once, famously, by halting an Italian League match at Piacenza until club officials had removed a racist fan’s banner whichinsulted a black player. He says: “Whether we’re talking about players, coaches or referees, everyone who takes part in the game deserves a certain level of respect.”

Intriguingly, the young Collina was not a perfectly behaved player. He admits to having been sent off a couple of times, but reflects that “for a defender – which I was – I don’t think two red cards in five or six years is out of the ordinary. A few fouls too many – it can happen to anyone, can’t it?”

Perhaps it’s that approach that has helped Collina reach the top of the tree – along with superhuman dedication. He hints at the latter attribute when asked to lay down guidelines for today’s would-be referees.

“He has to be physically and mentally prepared for a game played at a breakneck speed. His training should not only be physical but also in studying tactics and technique. He has to understand the game, to ‘read’ it, to know the background of the teams and the characteristics of each player. If he wants to be an international referee, then he has to learn foreign languages.

“All this demands a lot of time, even before you add on mental preparation and recuperation before and after a game. That’s why a top referee has to be full-time. You can’t go into a game with your mind having been distracted by other responsibilities. You owe your full concentration to the players and the fans.”