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“Rafa no me jodas,” — the human side of the celebrity linesman

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“El Día Después” recently celebrated 30 years. The programme has established a unique place in Spanish football’s sprawling mediascape by seeking out the human and the idiosyncratic. The show is more likely to feature club employees diligently going about their work or a sweet exchange between fans than a pixel-by-pixel replay of a disputed offside call. After a misguided hiatus in the mid-2000s, the programme was thankfully restored and continues in the spirit of its most influential presenter — Michael Robinson.

Robinson was poignantly remembered as the programme began the new season by looking back over its three decades. As the montages relived moments from the annals of the show, one occasion inevitably featured. A remarkable interaction between a referee and his linesman captured by the Canal+ microphones that would forever be known by a phrase that was never actually said. One that changed the life of one of the protagonists forever.

It was September 1996 and Bobby Robson’s Barcelona were struggling in a steamy and raucous Romareda. Real Zaragoza had taken a distinctly physical approach to defending and on the break had found the perfect outlet. Gustavo López was shredding Barcelona, scoring twice as well as planting the opening goal on the head of Gus Poyet.

A sublime Luís Figo goal and a trademark Ronaldo finish had given Barça a foothold in the game. Midway through the second half, they trailed 3-2 as Xavier Aguado thundered through the calves of Iván De la Peña, earning a booking. The free-kick allowed Barça an opportunity to put the ball into the Zaragoza box which temporarily became home to the game’s numerous feuds. Referee Manuel Mejuto González had to intervene in one dispute between Barcelona’s Giovanni and Zaragoza’s Vladislav Radimov – firmly telling the Russian to get up after making the most of some minimal contact.

Figo’s cross was poor and easily claimed by the goalkeeper. However, as Juanmi cleared the ball downfield several players tangled in the box and the linesman, Rafael Guerrero, immediately raised his flag. The suspicions of the commentary team, which included Robinson, initially centred on the spat between Giovanni and Radimov. However, the alleged culprit and the recommended punishment were soon very publicly known as Mejuto went across to consult his linesman.

An orange bibbed member of the TV production crew carrying a state-of-the-art effects microphone had made his way towards the scene. Shrewdly, he’d positioned himself at enough distance to avoid being shooed away but close enough to pick up a stunningly clear and chaotic conversation between referee and linesman. The exchange would become legendary.

“Penalty and sending off.” 

“Fuck, Rafa. I shit on my mother*. Sending off for who?” 

“Number 6. He’s hit Couto clearly on the head from behind. Clearly hit Couto from behind with his hand.” 

“What number?” 

“Number 6. Ask Camblor [the other linesman] if he has seen anything. For me, it was number 6.” 

“Penalty and sending off?” 

“Yes, yes, yes.” 

*a commonly used expression of exasperation in Mejuto's native Asturias

Mejuto marched away, red card in hand before a wave of doubt suddenly washed over him. Spinning around, he walked back towards his linesman to seek clarification. Swarmed by players, it took what seemed like an eternity before the pair were finally given the space to speak again.

“Let’s see. Was the ball in play when…?” 

“The ball was clearly in play.”

“But when I spoke to you, the ball was already out?”

“When you spoke to me?”

“Of course. Where was the ball?”

“Ah! When you spoke to me, the ball was out of play. Then that would be a sending off and no penalty. But if the ball is in play, it’s a penalty.”

“Let’s see…”

“When the foul occurs the ball is in play, that is, the ball is in play when a foul occurs, therefore…”

“Penalty and red card.”

The stadium din lulled as Mejuto strode back on to the field, holding up six fingers. Zaragoza’s number six, Aguado, duly stepped forward and was shown the red card, collapsing to the ground in disbelief. Mejuto pointed to the spot and chaos ensued. At one point, Poyet was seen encouraging his teammates to leave the field. Guerrero took his position for the penalty accompanied by security personnel as Zaragoza players hounded him.

A red card was not an unfamiliar sight to Aguado — on this occasion, though, he was innocent. Guerrero had confused him with his defensive partner Jesús Solana. The pair had tangled with Fernando Couto, who had kicked Aguado. Solana, immediately behind them, instinctively cuffed Couto on the back of the head by way of retribution. Couto, of course, took the cue to go down. That it was a simple case of mistaken identity was a fact lost in the wave of indignation that swept the Romareda. Indeed, a detail that became largely forgotten in the months and years to come.

Eventually, six minutes after the incident had taken place, something approaching calm was restored. Barça’s Gheorge Popescu stood poised to take the penalty. Even then there was a brief delay as police frogmarched a home supporter in a bright red cap and a ‘Hooligans Zaragoza’ t-shirt behind the goal. Finally, Popescu levelled the game.

The episode turned the game on its head. Zaragoza immediately withdrew Lopez, by far the night’s best player, seeking to shore up the defence. As Mundo Deportivo reported, it was to no avail. “The nature of the equaliser unhinged Victor Fernández’s side, who, with a man less and having lost their lead were a simple toy for Barcelona.” Goals from Luis Enrique and Ronaldo completed a 3-5 win for Barcelona.

As the stadium emptied in the last ten minutes, a hardcore of Zaragoza supporters congregated on the first row of the Tribuna Este to barrack Guerrero. If the embattled linesman was desperately wishing for the game to finish, he would have to wait. A farcical ending saw a succession of balls go missing leading to the bizarre sight of exhausted players sitting on the pitch for three minutes waiting for a replacement to be sourced.

As an intense evening drew to a close, at the post-match press conference Zaragoza coach Fernández bemoaned Guerrero’s intervention. “I can’t understand how a linesman can take such responsibility in an incident he can’t even see properly and has gotten wrong. Things like that happen 200 times a game and in both areas.”

Barcelona were understandably more philosophical. With Robson unwell, his assistant, José Mourinho, told the press that his only issue with the refereeing that evening had been Mejuto’s permissiveness of Zaragoza’s “violent play.”

Even in the pre-digital age, the events of that Sunday night in the Romareda had all the ingredients to go viral. The sports press dedicated multiple pages to the fallout for days. But it was the audaciously captured audio of the incident that propelled it to a broader audience. The sheer novelty of access to such a conversation and the colourful nature of the dialogue featuring Mejuto’s exasperated choice of language made for compelling entertainment.

All of that was encapsulated perfectly by the production team of “El Día Después”. Hilariously, they broke the play down scene by scene, backed dramatically by the soundtrack from “The Usual Suspects.” It was a brilliant summation of the episode that helped seal its place in the public consciousness, forever captured by a four-word phrase that was never actually said — “Rafa no me jodas,” “Rafa – don’t fuck me about.”

It was a phrase that launched a public persona. Rafael Guerrero Alonso, a second season Primera linesman from León, became known simply as ‘Rafa’ — the most famous man to run the line in Spanish football history.

Curly-haired, slightly ungainly and with a hint of Screech from “Saved By The Bell” about him, Guerrero was easy for fans to spot. While at times it felt like he sought the spotlight, there was undoubtedly a self-fulfilling element as cameras continually sought more footage of the continuing exploits of ‘Rafa’.

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Elements of it were good fun, even for Guerrero, who remembers fondly some of the good-natured moments, such as the reception he received from Athletic fans at San Mamés upon emerging from a month-long cooling off period after the Romareda.

A touching note to the story was even provided by the innocent party of the night. Xavier Aguado drove from Zaragoza to León, asking around town for where he could find Guerrero until he tracked him down to tell him there were no hard feelings and that he felt sorry for what Guerrero was going through. The two became good friends.

Others had arrived in León less well-intentioned. Guerrero’s family home was besieged by the press in the aftermath of the game and the sadly inevitable threats of malice towards him arrived by post.

Amid the chaos and the questioning of his competence, it was somewhat ironic that Guerrero found some escape when he received notification that UEFA had promoted him to matches at a European level. At the same time as being sidelined in Spain, he was flying to Istanbul to run the line during Manchester United’s 2-0 Champions League win over Fenerbahçe.

Indeed, domestically he would always carry the stigma of Zaragoza — he would forever be ‘Rafa’. Internationally, however, he made discreet progress. He racked up an impressive tally of European club games and was chosen alongside Mejuto to go to Euro 2004. Nearly eight years after that infamous night the pair were officiating on the biggest stage.

The ghost of that night in Zaragoza was never too far away though. Similar incidents had a habit of cropping up — even thousands of miles from home. When Guerrero was selected to go the African Cup of Nations in 2000, he found himself in the unenviable position of witnessing the home nation’s idol, Jay-Jay Okocha elbow Mbaye Badji at the end of Nigeria’s epic quarter-final win over Senegal in Lagos. As he always has done, he dutifully raised his flag. There was no sound effects crew on hand to record the conversation with the Zimbabwean referee but the fallout from the subsequent red card was equally if not more spectacular. He was besieged once more and forced to change hotels before eventually deciding that returning to Spain was a more pressing priority than waiting around for full payment of his tournament fee.

Guerrero’s flight home took him over the Sahara desert, a place that held a special connection for him. One that reveals another side to his character, far away from the publicity-seeking, comedy linesman that he had come to be portrayed as.

In the summer of 1996, just a few months before that night in Zaragoza, Guerrero received a call from a lady named Pilar. Pilar was in charge of a programme that brought children from Saharan Algeria to León for the summer to lodge with families. Three families had been forced to back out and she called Guerrero to see if he knew anyone that could help. “I don’t. But one can stay with me,” was the reply. Later that day, a boy from a family of nomads, Jalil, arrived and would never return to the desert.

Fostered by Guerrero and his wife, Salomé, Jalil became part of the family. “Just another one of us, who I’m proud to say has me on his phone as ‘Papa’,” Guerrero told “Vamos a ver” — a slightly mushier version of “This Is Your Life” for people from Castilla y León.

On the show, Guerrero came across as a big-hearted man. His tireless work for charity was attested to by his best friend, former referee Iturralde González. Guerrero seems instinctively drawn to the less fortunate in society, supporting them either individually or through his involvement as founder of Desafío Solidario, which organises fundraising sporting weekends.

Whether he actively sought out his fame as ‘Rafa’ or whether it was thrust upon him following a unique turn of events can be forever debated. What is beyond doubt is that Guerrero has played the hand he was dealt mainly for the benefit of others. A point illustrated by his involvement in a TV advert in 2004. The bungling figure of Rafa is bundled into the back of a shiny new Renault van and deposited deep into the wilderness. Flag in hand and in full linesman garb the van drives off. The punchline being that, out there, he can no longer spoil the games.

That a linesman was chosen to front an advertising campaign for a multinational car manufacturer tells one story. That the €2,500 fee went directly to Médecins San Frontières tells quite another.

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