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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting for a Fair Game

MT
Mark Rafalov's life would be extraordinary even if he had never written a single book or ever put a whistle in his mouth. Having been a referee in Soviet soccer's heyday in the 1960s, Rafalov is now a journalist and one of the harshest critics of corruption in the modern game.

Born in 1926 in Moscow, the son of a Jewish Communist, he spent his childhood in Paris before his life was torn apart in 1938 with his father's arrest in Stalin's purges.

Despite the stigma of being the son of a man deemed an enemy of the people, he fought in the infantry for four years during World War II and became a successful engineer. But it was what Rafalov did in his spare time that made his name.

Rafalov was not the most famous nor, he would admit, the best game official in the Soviet Union, but he had a reputation as one of the most principled in a game that has had problems with corruption for the last 50 years.

"He fought as much as he could against fixed matches," Aksel Vartanyan, a soccer historian, said. "He wrote a lot about it and agitated against it."

If Rafalov was an old English match official, he would be booked solid on the after-dinner speech circuit, serving up his stories of times on the pitch with Soviet legends as well as the numerous sharp, witty and sometimes poignant memories he has from his time at the center of Soviet Union's most popular sport.

Instead he reminisces by writing about the game as a journalist and author, from a position as both an insider and an outsider.

He first put a referee's whistle in his mouth at the end of 1950s. In Soviet days, referees were amateurs and Rafalov had to ask for vacation from his day job as an engineer every time he went to referee a match. As a veteran he was entitled to an extra two weeks' vacation, making a grand total of 45 days that he used up on soccer alone.

"I never had any family holidays," he said.

Having refereed or acted as linesman in more than 300 games in 15 years, Rafalov retired and became one of the first inspectors of games when the inspectors' league was set up in 1974. He inspected matches in a period when corruption was growing until, he said, he was ousted.

He often reported his suspicions that games were fixed but "my messages disappeared into the desks of the cowardly bureaucrats," he writes in his memoir, in which he calls himself a dissident. Rafalov said he was even threatened by mafia bosses in the 1990s.

One of his proudest works is a book of football obituaries, remembering many players who disappeared from view, their fate unknown. Rafalov found out where they were buried and the book, divided into sections on each Moscow cemetery, has short obituaries on who is buried in each.

His latest book is a more personal memoir, "Futbol Optom i v Roznitsu," or "Football in Wholesale and Retail," published by Vagrius. It is a smart and often moving read about his life that packs in all his football stories but adds details of his own remarkable life.

"That's the only thing I've got left from that time," said Rafalov, pointing to an ornate dark wood chair and an art deco lamp in his flat near Park Pobedy -- two Parisian mementos from when his father lived in the French capital as a Soviet economic representative. Agents of the KGB's predecessor, the NKVD, stole most of the family's valuables when his father was arrested, he said.

Rafalov was just 5 years old when his father was arrested in the purges of 1938, and he and his mother were marked as traitors for being relatives. Refused work, his mother only survived by typing menus for a cafe at Kuznetsky Most in return for food.

Rafalov went on to write many of his articles on the same Underwood typewriter. He is continuing writing -- either on the typewriter or by hand -- and declaiming on the rights and wrongs of football today. His creed and advice, he said, is to be honest even if it is sometimes easier to be dishonest.

"He is objective and honest," said Igor Dobronravo, a philosopher turned football editor, who has known Rafalov for 10 years.

Dobronravo paraphrases legendary Dynamo coach Mikhail Yakushin when he talks about Rafalov's writing: "It is rare to meet a journalist who writes well and even rarer to meet one who also understands the game."