Referees are called a lot of things. Some of it is unrepeatable. Some of it is so repeatable that it’s cliché. Yet few are ever labelled as “quirky”, but that’s exactly what Las Palmas coach Paco Jémez called Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz last week after his Las Palmas side drew 1-1 against Barcelona, a match filled with officiating controversy. Even though those at the Camp Nou are angry with him this week, Mateu Lahoz is not necessarily pro-Barça or anti-Barça or pro-Madrid or anti-Madrid. Mateu Lahoz is simply pro-Mateu Lahoz.
He’s a different kind of referee and he just loves to be the centre of attention. Having wanted to be a footballer as a kid, Mateu Lahoz has sort of fulfilled his dream and actually fills more column inches than the majority of players in LaLiga. Such entertainment value is the 40-year-old from the Valencian Community that he is featured on Spain’s ‘El Día Después’ programme multiple times a season, enough to be due a commission payment or two. From his arrival at the stadium in sunglasses like a rock ‘n’ roll star, complete with thumbs up and winks for the fans, to his camaraderie with the players in the tunnel and during the game, Mateu Lahoz is one of the most unique officials around.
No other referee is as chatty with the players, calling each of them by their first names and even congratulating them on the birth of a child or on the launching of a new business venture right in the middle of the match, if he’s read something interesting in the papers. “For me, reading what is being said in the media in the lead up to a game is fundamental,” he once said. “I want to know how every player comes into the game, if there is pressure, if they have been accused of diving, how many bookings they have. I spend hours reading, watching videos and making notes on my next game.”
However, it’s not just Mateu Lahoz who does his homework before a fixture he has been assigned to. Some of the clubs do as well. “He is so different to others referees in Spain that you even prepare games differently,” Almería’s Fernando Soriano once said, and he wasn’t referring to Mateu Lahoz’s celebrityness.
What Soriano meant was that Mateu Lahoz calls fouls in a different way to the majority of Spanish whistlers, with his style often described as an English one given the way he prefers to let the game flow. “He likes to appear different and frequently overdramatizes the situation,” AS’s Alfredo Relaño wrote, before going on to point out that there are two different ways of refereeing in Spain, the way of the majority, and the Mateu Lahoz way. In a league where one of the more reasonable demands that can be made of referees is for greater consistency, this isn’t always helpful, which is why players know a different kind of game awaits when the Valencian’s name is on the billing.
But his English style may have gone too far. Following his arrival on the scene in 2008, Mateu Lahoz’s career started off really well and he had two or three excellent seasons when he first started out, even leading Jose Mourinho to label him as “fantastic and a referee with a good philosophy”. That was before Mateu Lahoz seemed to buy into the English style idea so much that he began to ignore blatant fouls. Despite this, he still shows plenty of yellows, booking players for off-the-ball drama more than the average referee, while failing to penalise dangerous tackles. Spanish journalist Daniel Blanco may have been slightly exaggerating when he said “there are some matches in which he shows more yellow cards than he blows fouls”, but he’s not far off.
As much as it’s clear that Mateu Lahoz has lost his golden touch a little in recent times, it should be remembered that he was the man in the middle at the Stade de France the evening of the terror attacks in Paris in 2015. The Valencian has admitted that the events of that France vs Germany friendly seriously got under his skin and it’s logical to think that he treads differently now every time he steps onto a football pitch.
Even though the highly respected Spanish radio presenter José Ramón de La Morena has said the official now calls fouls “like a broken weather vane”, Mateu Lahoz’s leadership qualities remain fully intact. It’s undeniable that he was born to referee. He was destined to be in charge. On his way home from a Deportivo La Coruña match in 2016, for example, there was a lengthy delay to the flight and it was Mateu Lahoz who took it upon himself to conduct the angry mob, acting as the spokesperson in conveying their concerns to the airline and organising the complaints forms so that everyone could seek the appropriate compensation. It might not be that he always positions himself at the centre of attention. Attention might sometimes position itself around him.
It’s also true that Mateu Lahoz is in the morning headlines more often than others because he takes charge of so many of the biggest fixtures. Referees in Spain cannot officiate a match involving a club from their own regional community, so the fact Mateu Lahoz is from Valencia means he can take charge of any top-of-the-table clash between Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atlético, or any local derby bar the Valencian ones.
He has also been an international referee since 2011 and will even be going to the 2018 World Cup as a Spanish representative. But don’t for a minute think Mateu Lahoz will avoid being the subject of criticism just because the Spanish focus in Russia will be elsewhere. Whenever he officiates an international match, it’s the turn of football fans from Greece to Germany and Russia to Scotland to wonder what on earth they’re seeing.
He recently whipped Twitter into a frenzy with his performance during Italy’s World Cup qualifier second leg against Sweden, in which he made a drama out of every stop in play, at the same time as refusing to blow for a spot kick no matter what went on in the two penalty areas. “I thought it was noticeable just how physical the referee was in the Italy vs Sweden game last night, as I can’t ever remember a ref putting his hands on the players so much,” one user tweeted. “The referee in the Italy vs Sweden game is far too bothered about being centre of attention,” said someone else. Another picked up on his “thoroughly flamboyant hand gestures”. Someone called him a Spanish Mike Dean.
In the end, perhaps we should be grateful for Mateu Lahoz and the eccentricity he injects into football in Spain and beyond. Some call him quirky and others call him annoying, but it says it all that everybody involved in LaLiga has an opinion about him one way or the other. He’s the marmite of Spanish refereeing. He’s Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz.