Pierluigi Collina pauses for thought and casts his mind back 20 years to the night Manchester United scored twice in the three minutes of injury-time he added on at the Nou Camp.
Is there anything the revered Italian referee would have done differently?
‘Probably the stoppage time would have been longer,’ replies Collina after a few moments of careful reflection.
Manchester United are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their Champions League win
Referee Pierluigi Collina helped the Bayern Munich players to their feet in the final
‘Normally, only substitutions were considered for stoppage time. Today, we are telling the referees to be more accurate in calculating it.
‘When a goal is scored there is normally one minute of celebration and we tell the referee to compensate for this. But I think we are talking about small, small details.’
There were only 20 seconds left on Collina’s watch when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stuck out a leg to divert Teddy Sheringham’s header into the Bayern Munich net. The game was over. Collina knew it and so did the Germans.
One of the most poignant images of that night was Collina trying to physically haul the distraught Bayern players to their feet so he could blow the whistle on their Champions League dream.
It was one not entirely in keeping with the fearsome sight of Collina in his pomp; that famous bald head, bulging eyes and a menacing stare that practically dared players to step out of line.
‘Answering back was one step from suicide,’ Steven Gerrard wrote in his autobiography.
Again a moment of contemplation while Collina recalls his act of compassion two decades ago.
‘It was a human reaction, absolutely,’ he says. ‘I agree with you, it’s something that doesn’t usually happen. I didn’t realise I was doing that.
The legendary Italian said it was a ‘human reaction’ to help the devastated players
‘If you live that moment and you see these players desperate, it is the normal reaction to try to tell them, “come on guys, you need to play a few seconds”.
‘They were lying on the ground because they knew the match was over. We could have finished it at that moment but there were 20 seconds and the show must go on.
‘On one side was the joy of the Man United players and on the other side the desperation of the Bayern Munich players. Two completely different reactions.
‘What happened in the three minutes of stoppage time was something very unique in the history of the Champions League, and I would say even in the history of football.
‘That’s why this match is considered the ultimate final, not because of the 90 minutes but because of the three-minute ending.
‘To come back at the very end, it can happen. But if it happens in the most important match in the biggest club competition in the world, it’s different.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer diverted Teddy Sheringham’s header to score the winner
Collina said he would not do much differently but would have added more stoppage time
‘For me, it was a privilege to be there and part of the Champions League history.’ Collina is speaking at home in Forte dei Marmi, a seaside playground for the Italian elite. Other residents in this exclusive part of Tuscany include Giorgio Armani and Andrea Bocelli.
Nearly 14 years have passed since he hung up his whistle and Collina is still the most recognisable referee on the planet; still a hugely respected but formidable presence as the head of FIFA’s referee committee at the age of 59.
All the more surprising then to discover that one of his favourite memories from ’99 was hearing Montserrat Caballe’s pre-match duet of Barcelona with Freddie Mercury who appeared on a big screen at the Nou Camp nearly eight years after his death.
‘That was absolutely great,’ recalls Collina. ‘I like Freddie Mercury very much and that was something special for me.
‘At the time I was 39-years-old so I was quite young compared to the age of the referee who normally has the Champions League final.
Collina reflected that he was young compared to most Champions League final referees
‘But I already refereed many matches so frankly speaking I was not under pressure. Not at all. I think I can be happy with how the match went.’
Collina still has Jaap Stam’s shirt as a souvenir but couldn’t accept an invitation to referee the anniversary game at Old Trafford on Sunday due to a back complaint.
Bayern will be relieved. Collina was also in charge for Germany’s 5-1 defeat to England in 2001 and again a year later when they lost the World Cup final to Brazil in Yokohama.
‘Oliver Khan said that I definitely didn’t bring him luck because he lost many important matches with me as the referee,’ says Collina.
‘I can agree with Khan. But the referee’s task isn’t to bring someone luck.’