Rest in Peace Puhl Sándor

Earlier today it was announced that former Hungarian referee Puhl Sándor has passed away aged 65.

Palotai Károly led the way in terms of Hungarian refereeing greats, he was our first referee to really shine on the International stage. He was the one who showed that Hungary could produce great referees as well as great footballers. Puhl Sándor followed Palotai Károly and went on to become Hungary’s greatest ever referee. He was hugely talented and had a real wow factor about him out on the pitch. Personally I would consider him to be in the top 5 in the world, in his time.

Puhl Sándor was born in Miskolc on 14th July 1955. He passed his referee exam aged 15 and gradually worked his way up through the youth and mens leagues before making his debut as an Assistant Referee on the NBI on 20th April 1983 in the Nyíregyháza VSSC v Csepel SC match. He went on to make his debut as a referee in the NBI on 16th September 1984 in the match between Vasas v Csepel SC. He went on to referee 226 matches in the NBI, also making 117 appearances as an assistant referee and 1 as fourth official. His final match as an NBI referee was on 22nd July 2000 in a match between Ferencváros v Haladás. He gave 666 yellow cards and 28 red cards during that time.

In terms of his International refereeing career. He became a FIFA referee in 1988 and worked his way up the various classes to become an elite referee. His international debut came in a friendly match in November 1988 between the then Czechoslovakia v Norway. He attended the 1991 U21 World Cup, refereeing a Group stage match between England v Uruguay and the semi final between Portugal v Australia. He went on to referee in the Champions League for 6 seasons (1992-1998) although continued to referee UEFA matches until 2000. He refereed at 2 Euros in 1992 & 1996 and the 1994 World Cup, where he became the first and only Hungarian referee to referee a world cup final. His International retirement match was in a friendly match between Italy v England on 15th November 2000, almost 12 years to the day of his debut.

Most people will remember Puhl Sándor for the 1994 World Cup Final match Brazil v Italy. He followed that up 3 years later when he refereed the UEFA Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund v Juventus in 1997. He was voted as the best male referee by IFFHS four times in a row, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 197.

An honorary citizen of the cities of Eger and Emőd, Puhl Sándor remained within refereeing following his retirement. Between 2000 & 2006, he was appointed by the MLSZ as the chairman of the Refereeing Committee and the Refereeing Board, which operates as an independent advocacy organisation. During this time he was also the vice-president of the MLSZ. He was also on the FIFA Refereeing committee and acted as a UEFA referee observer. From 2010 he was a vice president of the MLSZ JB (the Hungarian Football Federation Referee Department) a role he held until his death. He also worked for Sports TV giving an insight into refereeing although had not been seen on screen for a few months since his hospitalisation with coronavirus.

The Hungarian Football Federation shares silent grief with his family that asks the mourners and members of the press to respect their request for privacy at this sad time: they do not wish to comment, and they will arrange a quiet funeral later. Hungarian football, especially the refereeing community, shares their grief.

Over the coming days many will talk of their own memories of Puhl Sándor. Funny moments from matches and dressing rooms, happy memories, moments of solidarity and lessons learned along their own career paths. The coin story from the World Cup has already appeared in the media, I remember Puhl Sándor talking about it in an interview. As the coin was made of silver and very heavy he had given it to his fourth official to hold during the game rather than keep it in his pocket. The fourth official then left it in the dressing room at half time, when it came to the coin toss for extra time there was no coin. Quick thinking by Puhl Sándor saw him discreetly borrow a coin from a nearby TV cameraman – a coin he subsequently held onto amongst his memorabilia collected over the years.

One of the best quotes I have seen by Puhl Sándor is “The referee’s mission, his vocation, is to use the power vested in him to help those outside the playing field have the best fun possible.”  A perfect summation. During an interview with NSO on the 20th anniversary of the World Cup Final, he was asked what makes a good referee and replied “The referee’s mission is to keep the viewer as entertained as possible. It is very important for the referee to be aware of this kind of mission consciousness. With each judgment, the referee gives something to one team and takes it away from the other. You can’t favour both teams at the same time, you have to be aware of that. For a referee, what’s really uplifting is when he feels he’s been able to make a match better with his judgments. The difficulty of the profession, and at the same time the biggest challenge, is to lead prominent individuals along uniform aspects, while leaving the possibility for the individual to assert themself. There is a certain degree of desire in the referees, but only the referee who can control his own individuality can give up his ego when it is needed.”

I saw Puhl Sándor referee live 3 times, the first time was at Windsor Park on the 18th November 1992. My home nation team lost 1-0 to Denmark but as I left the ground that day Puhl Sándor had a new fan. I saw him again next at Wembley 3 years later, 15th November 1995 when he refereed a friendly between England v Switzerland. I worked at Wembley at the time and was on the security team detailed to team referee. I had the chance to speak with him, a brief chat about refereeing and the difference between refereeing in a smaller nation like Hungary and a bigger nation like England. As I escorted him out of the ground post match he handed me a signed copy of the match day programme. He was back at Wembley in June 1996, refereeing the Euro 1996 semi final game between Germany v England. He remembered me from the year before and post match another signed match programme found itself my way. I had been due to work at Wembley for his next appearance there on 12th February 1997 in the England v Italy match, however a nasty accident a month earlier saw me still in hospital at the time. The day after the game one of my colleagues arrived at the hospital and handed me a match day programme signed by Mr Puhl with a message of get well soon wishes. I never got to meet him again.

Puhl Sándor 1955 – 2001

Rest in peace Puhl Sándor. Thank you for 50 years of service to refereeing.