Being a referee can be a thankless task, especially in the world of professional football where players have occasionally been known to disrespect and harangue officials.

I mean, who can forget Jaap Stam and his Manchester United teammates surrounding referee Andy D’Urso at Old Trafford in 2001, after the official had the temerity to award Middlesborough a penalty following a foul by the Dutchman?

Still, some of the sport’s most iconic referees have fared better than others, commanding respect from players and standing up to even the most sustained verbal aggression. But which referees truly stand out from the crowd? Let’s find out!

1. Kim Milton Nielsen

In no particular order, we’ll start with Danish official Kim Morten Nielsen, whose no-nonsense approach saw him take charge of 154 internationals and 53 Champions League games during a stellar career.

Nielsen became a FIFA-affiliated referee at the age of just 28, before officiating at the highest level for 17 years before his retirement in 2006. During this time, he refereed a number of high-profile matches, including the 1994 UEFA Cup final and the Champions League showpiece finale in 2004.

He’s also best known as the referee who sent off David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup, after the England star lashed out at Argentine midfielder Diego Simeone in a round-of-16 clash.

Interestingly, Nielsen’s stern approach was helped by his towering frame, as he stood at 6-feet 6-inches tall and often looked down on the majority of players who he took charge of.

2. Howard Webb

English referee Howard Webb also boasted a physically dominant look and muscular frame, while his former incarnation as a sergeant in the South Yorkshire Police force stood him in good stead when officiating football matches.

Webb was clearly the best referee in England throughout the noughties, while he served as a FIFA-listed official between 2005 and 2014. During this time, he took charge of both the Champions League final and the World Cup final, becoming the first person to referee both matches in the same year (2010) in the process.

Unsurprisingly, he was also voted FIFA’s Best Referee in 2010 and 2011, highlighting the esteem in which he was held during his peak years.

Webb also officiated in numerous FA Cup and League finals in the UK, while he was even included in the New Years’ Honour list in 2011 and received an MBE for his contribution to football on these shores.

3. Pierluigi Collina

Like Webb, the legendary Pierluigi Collina sported a physically dominant look and bald scalp, while he undoubtedly remains the best referee ever to officiate football matches at the highest level.

Incredibly, Collina was named as FIFA’s Best Referee in six consecutive years, which is even more impressive given that his career as a FIFA-listed official ran for a just decade between 1995 and 2005.

Affectionately nicknamed ‘Kojak’ for his iconic bald look (which was the result of alopecia), Collina largely plied his trade in Italy, taking charge of 43 Serie A matched with distinction before being inducted into FIFA’s referee list in 1995.

During his career, Collina officiated in the 2002 World Cup final, while he also took charge during the iconic 1999 Champions League final when Manchester United completed an historic treble.

Don’t forget to check our post on How to become football referee.

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