Antonio Mateu Lahoz. / EFE

Celebrity whistle-blowers

'Card crazy' referee Mateu Lahoz appears to be preparing for life after the peak of his career

ROB PALMER COMMENTATOR, ESPN

In the very near future, expect to see Antonio Mateu Lahoz leaping across your television screen on Strictly Come Dancing or Spain's equivalent.

He is the football referee who appears to be working on his celebrity status for the day he hangs up his whistle.

Señor Lahoz attracted worldwide attention when he administered seventeen cards in the World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and the Netherlands. Lionel Messi called for him to be sent home.

Now he's back home, he's surpassed the achievement in Qatar by showing 18 cards, awarding a disputed penalty, and sending off two players in the Catalan derby. It was three dismissals, but he accepted the advice of his VAR to allow Leandro Cabrera to continue.

He started the game with a peck on the cheek for Xavi Hernández in an attempt to diffuse a tension. He ended up booking the Barcelona manager and the majority of those involved on the field of play as he went card crazy.

Xavi didn't blame Lahoz for his side's failure to win, the penalty they conceded, or even Jordi Alba's red card, but concluded that "... he let the game get out of control".

Others are less kind; they accuse him of being an attention-seeker.

This could be unfair for a man who has been to two World Cups, the last European Championships and was the referee for the 2021 Champions League final. When Fifa needed someone to control the United States versus Iran game, they opted for Lahoz. He was an ideal peacekeeper who only booked three players in a politically explosive fixture.

Lahoz is one of the best, not just in Spain, but the world. He's participated in more finals than many of the players he's dealing with on a weekly basis. He handles games with personality, allows play to flow and converses with players and managers alike.

That's not to say he's not working on the image and brand for the weekends beyond football.

One top referee told me that once he was too old to be considered for top-level Uefa and Fifa matches he would referee games in a manner he wanted rather than that of the assessor in the director's box. If a player swore or gave back-chat, he would no longer turn a blind-eye or deaf ear and he'd book him. Take note that seven of the Barcelona yellow cards last week were for dissent.

Just after Premier League referee Jeff Winter had retired from full-time football, he was in the middle for the Masters' Football competition on Sky Sports in the summer. It started as a bit of five-a-side fun, but once ex-pros started playing it became fiercely competitive. The organisers introduced a sin bin which cooled the heads. It became evident that Mr Winter was enjoying the attention of schooling the players, sending them to the naughty step, and having the cameras trained on him. Our TV director responded by telling the camera operatives to keep him out-of-shot as often as possible.

I suspect that Señor Lahoz is following the example of my Premier League whistle-blower by applying a zero-tolerance policy now the World Cup and Champions League final days are behind him.

Like Mr Winter, he's keen to be in the limelight for celebrity appearances, the after-dinner speaking circuit, and ballroom-dancing spectaculars on the television.