Saudi Arabia probably counts to one of the more atypical places to take charge of your final match, and with it Viktor Kassai - one of the great referees of our lifetime, there should be little doubt about that - abandoned any hope of an emotional farewell. He allowed himself a slightly teary look at the end, but that was all. It can be too easy to invent a narrative, but in blowing his final whistle so far from football's epicentre, Kassai must have made peace with himself and his career - in many ways he is the referee of the decade, and somehow fitting that he should end his career days before we enter a new one.
Much changed in that decade too. Kassai went from being the future to "the future, once". His career is fascinating to analyse, of course there were mistakes, some very public and visible, but his excellence is enduring, his durability remarkable, his comebacks inspirational. We thought we were going to be treated with another which would see him attend EURO 2020 - but Kassai was already content.
So, was this decade of refereeing the Kassai Decade?
|Viktor Kassai during the Mexico - Uruguay game at FIFA World Cup 2010|
Competition in South Africa can be seen as the thesis for Kassai's career
In preparing to write this article - I thought a lot about how best to approach analysing an amazing and complex career - I decided to fill the gap of a two hour journey by rewatching the Spain - Italy group stage game from UEFA EURO 2012 handled by Viktor Kassai. It seems I, and I imagine many others also made this mistake, managed to forget just how brilliant Kassai was in that period. Wow! Wisła Kraków - APOEL, Barcelona - AC Milan, his Champions League Final - Hungarian gave us a masterclass in officiating football matches on many occasions.
It is remarkable how ahead of his time Kassai was: his style, with simply incredible game-feeling, flawless lenient foul detection, great fitness and awesome natural authority became the thesis of UEFA refereeing for years. It is not unfair to say that many European referees got far by being imperfect mimics of Kassai's way of refereeing; he really was the maître. It is really amazing how universal the skills that Kassai perfected, especially that game-feeling, then became universal in UEFA refereeing within a short few years - perhaps that is the greatest compliment to his refereeing. And yet, he must wear a wry smile as nobody is quite as good as he was at it.
|Viktor Kassai sorts out a yellow card during the UEFA Champions League 2011 Final|
Kassai became the youngest ever man to handle a CL Final at thirty-five
Manchester United - Barcelona game was very well-refereed by the Hungarian
If I may return to Spain - Italy, it was more-or-less clear by the time that Kassai walked out to handle the Ukraine - England game a week later that he was candidate No.1 for the EURO 2012 Final. That was an amazing rise for a referee who before World Cup 2010 was comfortably the most unknown of the Europeans there (despite handling the Olympic Final two years previous) - three excellent performances saw him appointed for the Germany - Spain Semifinal game, and he ended the competition as the best UEFA referee. Such style of refereeing had never been seen before - it is incredible through the prism of late 2019 to say that. Pierluigi Collina appointed Kassai for the Champions League Final in 2011 because he was the present and the future. It was a rise that continued exponentially and was about to take him to EURO Final.
Kassai was again excellent in England - Ukraine. But he was sent home - and the EURO Final had gone. It is impossible to look at his career without acknowledging the mistakes made in his games that cost him a lot - 23/April/2013, 18/April/2017, 7/November/2018 - and incredibly the World Cup that was the thesis of his career was his only one. His team-mates were not always faultless, but his continued friendship with Gábor Erös, his long-time assistant referee who recovered from cancer treatment to run his mates' line in that Champions League Final points to a great man as well as a great referee.
|Viktor Kassai during the England - Ukraine game at UEFA EURO 2012|
Additional Assistant Referee István Vad failed to recognise a goal for the hosts
Mistake resulted in the Hungarian quintet being sent home from the competition
It is a tragic irony that Viktor Kassai handled the first-ever EURO match with Goal-Line Technology; yet, a remarkable achievement that he managed to comeback from everything that happened in between that game in 2012 to be appointed for the opening game of EURO 2016. A very good UEFA Knockout Stage, particularly the Real Madrid - Wolfsburg game in the Quarterfinal of Champions League, created one of the inspirational comeback stories of the decade in refereeing. Missing the World Cup in 2014 where it was for a long time totally inconceivable that Kassai would not be there would have destroyed a lot of referees - but not him.
As four years ago, Kassai showed the best performance of the whole EURO: in the Germany - Italy Quarterfinal game. Remarkably, he was again on the cusp of the EURO Final being one of the two last men standing. If Wales had beaten Portugal in the Semifinal, Kassai would have a EURO Final in his palmarés. Instead, Mark Clattenburg handled the Final but Kassai was still involved - as fourth official, as he was in the Champions League Final 2016 again with the Englishman as referee. An excellent EURO again for Kassai, and this time he was rewarded for it. A wonderful moment!
And we thought he was going to do it again! Kassai showed his top class when he presented a very good officiating in the feisty Chinese Super League title decider in October this year, as well as in the decisive Champions League group stage match Atlético Madrid - Lokomotiv Moskva. It seems that Kassai was heading to a place on the refereeing team for EURO 2020 - which would be perfect swan song for the Hungarian to finish his career. But, he fooled us all and ended his career with a final match in the bombastic yet widely inconspicuous Saudi Pro League. Or perhaps better put - just another game for him.
Kassai clearly didn't care for a big send off or even an easy one at that - and that should be the biggest compliment to his career; it did not need one. His last act as a referee was to show a red card after the final whistle! And in a game that went more-or-less totally unnoticed, even in refereeing circles. Watching the Hungarian into the next decade would have been almost quaint; and besides, what more does he have to achieve - Kassai did not care for EURO 2020; UEFA needed him more than he needed them.
|Viktor Kassai during the Germany - Italy game at UEFA EURO 2016|
Hungarian was involved in six games in the competition, including the Final
So, we return to the initial question - was this decade of refereeing the Kassai Decade?
It is fair to say that when Viktor Kassai blew the final whistle on the Champions League Final in 2011 it was envisaged that he would have a career reminiscent of Cüneyt Çakır, with Semifinal after Semifinal. Kassai did not manage that.
But, if we talk about a man who was one of the best referees in the world more often than not in the last ten years, and a figure who not only revolutionised refereeing, but saw refereeing changed in his image - then yes, we really did just live in the Kassai decade of refereeing.
Joining him in also retiring from the pitch, one of the best Assistant Referees of the last decade, György Ring (only 1981 born!) - we wish them both the best of luck in the future.
Thank you Viktor!