Fluitend door de wereld – Whistling through the World – John Langenus

Outline

To my knowledge, this fragile, weather-stained book (printed in WWII, so the paper is of sub-par quality) is the first set of memoirs ever written by a football referee. Belgian John Langenus’ principal claim to fame rests on his being the referee of the final of the first World Cup in 1930. In this amusing book he reviews his career as a football referee, describing his impressions of the many travels he undertook in private and as a referee.

When Langenus started out (around 1910), football was still in its infancy. His own career as a referee began when he was still a junior player. Subbing in a senior match, he was then banned from ever playing as a junior again. Not wishing to take leave of his favourite sport, he decided to take up reffing. His exam included the memorable question: “During a match the ball is kicked high up in the air. Just at that moment an airplane flies by. The pilot catches the ball and takes it with him. What do you do?” Surprisingly (or not), Langenus failed the exam. Three months later, at a second try, he did pass. He bought a whistle, which he promptly lost after his first match. At the start of his second match, in despair, he was given a merchandise whistle by a bystander, which served him all the way up to the 1930 World Cup final. Even then, by the way, intimidation of referees was rife. His first match, a junior’s cup tie, was finished when the manager of one team told him that if he’d ever see Langenus again on the field, they’d kick his legs out from under him. He also received hits in the stomach and face (the latter even becoming a court case), and once on the way to the train, bricks were thrown at him. Still, after only four months with as many as three matches a weekend – not an easy task at the time – Langenus passed the exam that made him referee first class. Now his (international) career really took off.

He was a man of “firsts”. In 1927, he was the first continental ref officiating a cup final on the British Isles. In 1928 he reffed at the Amsterdam Olympics, having refused to ref at the 1924 Antwerp Olympics because the match was played in Brussels, Langenus arguing that all matches should be played in his – native – Antwerp. And in 1930 he travelled with the Belgian national team to the first World Cup in Uruguay, becoming the first ref in a WC final. His account of the trip by passenger ship and of the tournament itself cannot be beat as a piece of first-hand football history. All in all, he officiated six matches in three World Cups.

John Langenus holding the match ball before the final of the 1930 World Cup

John Langenus holding the match ball before the final of the 1930 World Cup

Value for active referees

Low.

I absolutely love Langenus’ words in his introduction: “… a football referee is not a person of such import as to justify the publication of his own biography or memoirs!” Which exactly matches my thoughts of quite a few referee biographies that have been published over the decades. Too many are ego documents, hastily put together on the basis of short-lived fame or controversy, most turning out inconsequential, insipid even. In essence, referees are figures on the periphery of football, loners in a sport that lives through individual stars, legendary sides and their fans. Only very few referees get elevated to football culture level. And even then their memoirs do not guarantee sizzling literature. Fortunately, Langenus’ memoirs do not share this fate. The short chapters ensure plenty of variety, pre-empting boredom. The other side of the coin is that it lacks in practical tips and use, except for the common denominator that referees have to undergo a lot of suffering if they want to reach the top.

Final say

Langenus’ stories about the 85 trips he made abroad as a referee – meeting such dignitaries as Mussolini, various kings and even the Pope – are highly entertaining, colourful and a good reflection of the difficulties that had to be endured on international travels. His descriptions of such faraway cities as Montevideo and Buenos Aires are a treat for his readers, who could only dream of going places, let alone board a plane. At the same time, his account paints an intimate history of interbellum football: the indomitability of the English, the rise of Italy, Spain, Austria and other countries, and the passion infused in South American football.

This biographie is extremely accessible and a great portrait of the man and his times, which is not let down by the fact that it contains little useful information for modern-day referees.

Title Fluitend door de wereld – Herinneringen en reisindrukken van een voetbal-scheidsrechter 
Author John Langenus
Year 1942
Pages 208
Publisher Snoeck Ducaju en Zoon
3.5 / 5     

Leave a Reply