Rudolf Kreitlein: The Brave Little Tailor from Fürth

GermanyA recent passing that went unreported in England was that of the controversial West German referee, Rudolf Kreitlein, who died last August at the age of 92. For those of you unfamiliar with the man and wondering what relevance he should have here, Kreitlein should be remembered fondly, alongside Azerbaijani linesman Tofiq Bahramov, as England’s other 1966 World Cup-enabling match official.

Kreitlein was in charge of the England v Argentina Quarter Final tie and went down in folklore as the man who sent off the Argentine captain Antonio Rattin because of the look on his face. What had been an evenly matched game swung away from the Argentinians playing without their captain and talisman and England snatched a win with a late Geoff Hurst goal. Kreitlein was a top-level official for a mere six seasons during the 1960s and sent off just two players in his career, yet both were very flawed decisions and both would spark much controversy.

Kreitlein was born in 1919 in the Bavarian city of Fürth and as a young man showed a keen aptitude for sport and a particular interest in football. Military service disrupted his career and towards the end of the conflict he was captured and put in an American POW camp. An arranger of matches between camp prisoners, Kreitlein would often referee these games too, spurring his interest in officiating.

After the war Kreitlein returned to work in Stuttgart as a tailor and played part-time with his local club until a knee injury ended his career in 1951. Determined to stay in the game in some capacity, he turned once again to refereeing. It was very much a part-time hobby for him, yet by the time of the inception of the Bundesliga in 1963 his reputation was strong enough to gain a nomination as a national referee.

That same year he officiated abroad for the first time in the UEFA Youth Tournament and was in charge of the England v Northern Ireland Final at Wembley. His stock continued to rise and by the 1965-66 season he was in charge of some of the biggest games on the calendar. A good performance in Milan when officiating Inter’s World Club Cup tie against Independiente led to him being given the nod to take charge of the 1966 European Cup Final in Brussels – easily the biggest game of his career to date.

Appointment as a 1966 World Cup referee was a natural progression, although it did highlight a major flaw with the very nature of refereeing at that time. Kreitlein was at the top of his field – indeed, he would have taken charge of the Final itself had West Germany not been participating – and yet he had only refereed 36 senior matches in his career. Most of the refereeing experience he had took place in the Bundesliga with West German footballers broadly respectful of authority, generally honest and showing little of the cynicism and the ruthlessly sophisticated gamesmanship that had become increasingly common in the Latin game. In modern terms he would be considered very inexperienced and, even by the standards of his day, he had limited exposure to the way the game was being played by players who didn’t necessarily conform to the standards he was used to.

Kreitlein refereed the 1966 group stage encounter between the Soviet Union and Italy without significant incident, but England’s highly charged match against Argentina would be a very different beast for the German. More than any other nation, Argentina represented the global shift towards a defensive, pragmatic, win-at-all-costs mentality with intimidation and underhand tactics a significant part of their game plan. There was little underhand about England and what you saw is what you got. Their particular brand of violence was more conventional and came from a willingness to tackle from behind, charge the goalkeeper and routinely make two footed tackles: all dressed up as good, honest contact in a game for proper men. Both countries took the position that their own brand of violence was perfectly righteous and this was a clash of cultures that would need careful and nuanced officiating.

Referees were not helped in their difficult job by the vague laws of the game as they stood, particularly Law 12 which left it open to a referee’s discretion whether he thought a bad tackle was intentional or not. Often it was easier for officials to take the path of least resistance and opt out of conflict by giving miscreants the benefit of the doubt.

By contrast, questioning a decision or arguing and insulting a referee were all seen as major transgressions within European circles. Officials were of an age where most had seen military service and were culturally wedded to a society built around rank and hierarchy. On the pitch they were the sergeant-majors and players were the rank and file, expected to follow orders and accept decisions without question when the referee issued them. Unsurprisingly many referees of the era were seen as pedantic and petty individuals – little men who wielded their small authority with big sticks.

Kreitlein’s awkward refereeing of this quarter-final tie suggested he found everything about Argentina and their very different footballing conventions rather distasteful. The continual histrionics and interruptions on the touchline from their coach Juan Carlos Lorenzo was a breach of manager protocol rarely seen in the Bundesliga and it seemed to unnerve Kreitlein. Meanwhile, the bad tackles were flying in with England certainly the more culpable here – during the 90 minutes they would concede 30 fouls against the 17 of the South Americans.

The Argentinian players were becoming increasingly frustrated: each foul by one of their players was invariably recorded by Kreitlein in his notebook, whereas England players seemed to be given much more leeway for offences of similar gravity. Bad tackles should have been seen as bad tackles, but, as the game progressed, there was a strong sense that Kreitlein was attributing different motivations to each side – England’s fouls being essentially honest, but mistimed, while Argentina’s were sly and calculated.

The pair had no common language but the Argentine captain Antonio Rattin still chose to start an ongoing and pointless dialogue with Kreitlein. Neither translator nor lipreader was needed to understand that the Argentinian was unhappy and that Kreitlein’s refereeing performance was the reason. As this dialogue continued, an already rattled Kreitlein became increasingly agitated by what he saw as Rattin’s threatening insubordination. By the 35th minute he had had enough and Rattin was dismissed from the field. Kreitlein would later explain the reasoning to Norman Giller of The Daily Express: “Rattin’s look was enough”.

It was certainly a brave move. Rattin was furious when he realised what had happened and refused to leave the pitch. A giant of a man, he squared up aggressively to the little 5ft 6″ German who commendably held his ground and earned himself the nickname of the ‘brave little tailor’. English referee supervisor Ken Aston entered the field to try to persuade Rattin to leave, but this only inflamed the situation. The Argentine party was enraged at what it saw as a stitch up between the English and the Germans to eliminate them from the tournament. After some considerable time had elapsed, Rattin was escorted by policemen from the pitch to the changing rooms.

Alf Ramsey’s infamous labelling of Argentina as ‘animals’ continues to taint the narrative of the game to this day. It has been widely interpreted as meaning that Argentina were the main perpetrators of the on-pitch violence and deserved all they got for their nihilistic approach, yet the quote has always been taken out of context. Ramsey did indeed use this term, but it was a specific reference to some unpleasant behaviour in the tunnel and around the dressing rooms after the game had finished. Ramsey had nothing specific to say about Argentina’s behaviour on the pitch.

Kreitlein was neither commended nor criticised for his performance by FIFA’s refereeing body, a discretely neutral position that suggested there was no strong backing of his call on Rattin. Looking at the decision again through a contemporary prism is tricky with standards having changed so much, yet it does still seem hard to justify sending off a player for continually chattering and looking at you in a way you didn’t like – especially while those around him on both teams were allowed to kick lumps out of each other with impunity.

The Rattin debacle would at least have some long-term, positive repercussions for the game. Ken Aston pondered over the communication issues that had blighted the incident and it led to him developing the red and yellow card system, one designed to be a universal, non-verbal method for a referee to convey disciplinary decisions. Aston discussed his plans with Kreitlein and the pair put their idea forward to FIFA for ultimately successful ratification four years later. Kreitlein was also active in devising an early prototype of the referee paging system we see in general use today.

Rudolf Kreitlein continued refereeing in the Bundesliga for another three years and during the 1967-68 season, his second career sending-off would thrust him into the unwanted glare of major controversy once again. Towards the end of a Köln v Hannover League match Kreitlein dismissed Hannover fan favourite Jürgen Bandura for being patronising towards him. A Hannover free-kick was slow to be taken amidst complaints that the Köln wall had not retreated far enough. In an admittedly exaggerated manner, Bandura proceeded to demonstrate to the referee how to measure out the 10 yards distance between ball and wall. Kreitlein appeared to take umbrage to his attitude and sent him off.

Repercussions were harsher for the embattled referee this time. He had merely needed a police escort out of Wembley to evade angry Argentinians in 1966 whereas this time furious Hannover fans harassed him for weeks with a barrage of telephone threats to kidnap his son and burn down his tailor shop in Stuttgart. Retiral the following season probably came as a great relief.

It probably reflects poorly on Rudolf Kreitlein that he officiated during a very violent footballing decade and yet saw fit to only make examples of those who were mildly disrespectful to him on a personal level. His innovation off the pitch that would help make the jobs of his refereeing successors a great deal easier stands as his main legacy, at least until he finally, and now posthumously, gets the overdue recognition he deserves from England supporters for his contribution to their World Cup success.

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4 thoughts on “Rudolf Kreitlein: The Brave Little Tailor from Fürth

  1. This was a really interesting article with some good research. I’m glad you didn’t let him pass away unnoticed.

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