Alberto Undiano Mallenco will never forget his last match as a referee – Sunday’s UEFA Nations League final between Portugal and the Netherlands. “I want to enjoy the experience,” says the Spaniard, who hangs up his whistle after three decades of service.
Refereeing three finals in a month is a wonderful way to bring the curtain down on a distinguished refereeing career – as Spanish match official Alberto Undiano Mallenco completes more than 30 years with the whistle with a major European occasion.
The 45-year-old father-of-two from Pamplona referees his last-ever match when hosts Portugal face the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League final in Porto on Sunday. It is a memorable achievement in a life in refereeing that has brought success and recognition.
It has been a hectic month for Undiano. He took charge of Spain’s Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Valencia two weekends ago, while earlier in May, and by invitation of the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA), he officiated at the Armenian Cup final between Alashkert and Lori.
Now comes Sunday’s eagerly awaited showdown at the Estádio do Dragão, where Undiano will be determined to maintain his standards right until he blows his whistle for the very last time. “The appointment for the UEFA Nations League final is fantastic for me, just fantastic. I want to enjoy the experience,” he says proudly.”
“But I won’t be thinking at all that it’s my last match – it’s a big final and it’s my job to be concentrated right until the end. I will have time to feel emotions after the final whistle.”
A Spanish team will accompany Undiano: assistants Roberto Alonso Fernández and Juan Yuste Jiménez, plus fourth official Antonio Mateu Lahoz. With the video assistant referee (VAR) system in operation, the VAR duo are also both from Spain – Alejandro José Hernández Hernández (VAR) and Juan Martínez Munuera (assistant VAR). Another Spaniard, Raúl Cabañero Martínez, is the reserve official.
Undiano, a trained sociologist, embarked on his refereeing career by chance, at the age of 13. “I played football at school, but then I moved to a higher school where there was no football,” he recalls. “I was quite sad – I loved the game and wanted to continue in it. A friend of mine was a referee and he encouraged me to referee a match.
“I did so, just to see what it was like – and I found that I liked it. I discovered that it was something for me, so I kept going. A few years later a refereeing technical director said to me that I had ability and should work hard – and I began climbing the ranks.”
This finally led to a berth as a referee in Spain’s top flight in 2000, at the tender age of 26. “It was tough at the start,” he remembers, “because there were obviously players on the pitch who were older and more experienced. But I was determined, worked hard, and gradually earned their respect.” The red-hot atmosphere of elite Spanish football, he says, has been crucial in honing the mental strength that is so vital for a top-level referee. “You learn very quickly how to referee, how to handle people on the field,” he explains.
“It’s interesting to think that because I began at such a young age in La Liga, I’ve actually refereed fathers and their sons along the way – it’s been quite a journey.”
Undiano’s domestic success – including various national awards as the best Spanish referee – was followed by recognition beyond Spain in 2004, when he gained his international badge. He went to the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada and was assigned the final between Argentina and the Czech Republic. Three years later he was chosen as the only Spanish referee for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, where he officiated at three matches.
“It’s one of my fondest memories in refereeing,” Undiano says. “It was a marvellous feeling to go out on the field and referee in the World Cup finals, something you don’t forget.”
Undiano prefers a calm dressing-room preparation for big games. “I think if you get too excited or nervous in the period before a match,” he reflects, “it risks affecting your refereeing. It’s crucial for me to be well prepared mentally.
“You’ve got to be extremely fit too, because the game is so much faster nowadays – and one of the great innovations for referees has been the opportunity to study teams and how they play. It helps you referee a game when you know these things. You also have to be ready to adapt to the unexpected if things change.”
Undiano finds family comforts help him relax away from the football field, especially through visits to the cinema with his wife María and two sons David and Javier, aged 13 and 11 respectively. “You do spend a lot of time thinking about your refereeing, so it’s important to find that balance with your family,” he says. “And I like other sports – for example, I’m keen on going to futsal matches.
“My sons are very different in their tastes – David prefers music to football, but Javier is a football fanatic. I call him my number one fan!”
And what of the future? Happily, after 19 years’ refereeing at Spain’s highest tiers and 15 as an international official, Undiano will not be lost to the trade when he hangs up his whistle on Sunday.
“I will be starting work with the Spanish FA referees committee to help and support the next generation of referees,” he says.
“I’m very much looking forward to this new side of being in refereeing, and giving something back by making use of my experience,” Undiano concludes. “I’ve refereed for over 30 years – and I’ll certainly remember some wonderful moments.”