What ever happened to Byron Moreno? The heroin-smuggling worst referee in history
After his infamous handling of Italy’s 2002 World Cup loss to South Korea, the Ecuadorian’s life spiralled out of control and he ended up in jail
New York’s Kennedy Airport, September 20, 2010, and United States Customs officials stop a man who has just disembarked a flight from Ecuador for routine questioning. He becomes “visibly nervous”.
During a cursory search, an inspector feels “hard objects on the suspect’s stomach, back and both legs”. A more thorough examination reveals 10 clear plastic bags of approximately six kilograms of heroin strapped to the man’s body.
The Ecuadorian resident is promptly arrested and charged with drug-smuggling.
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His name is Byron Moreno and his drugs bust makes for headline news, not only in his homeland, but some 6,000 kilometres away in Italy.
Moreno’s infamously – and suspiciously – error-strewn handling of the country’s World Cup 2002 clash with co-hosts South Korea remained a great source of outrage among football fans on the peninsula.
Unsurprisingly, news of his arrest was viewed as vindication. Italian football fans had always viewed him as a criminal; here was the official confirmation.
“Six kilos of drugs?” Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon exclaimed. “I believe Moreno already had them in 2002, but not in his underwear – in his system.
“Joking aside, when sports people get involved in drug cases it means they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
Buffon wasn’t wrong. Moreno’s was an act of desperation. He had run up huge debts; smuggling heroin was his attempt to clear them.
What his attorney, Michael Padden, called “the circumstances that led to this unfortunate situation” essentially began eight years previously, at what should have been the highlight of Moreno’s career, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Instead, the tournament would forever taint him, with allegations of incompetency and corruption.
Even before the notorious meeting of South Korea and Italy in the last 16, Azzurri coach Giovanni Trapattoni was on edge.
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“I knew things were shaping up badly when Japan, the other host nation, was eliminated [just hours beforehand],” he explained years later.
“I said to my assistant at the time, Pietro Ghedin, ‘This is a bad sign. Wait until you see what happens…'”
Whether Trapattoni was merely speaking with the benefit of hindsight – conspiracy theories are certainly akin to a national pastime in a country riddled with as much corruption as Italy – but there is no denying that the Azzurri (who had already had four legitimate goals wrongly disallowed in the previous two group games versus Croatia and Mexico which almost eliminated them) were on the wrong end of one of the worst refereeing performances in sporting history.
During the 90 minutes, Moreno ignored countless rough tackles from the hosts and awarded them a penalty. After the match had gone to extra-time, the referee dismissed Francesco Totti for a second bookable offence, ‘diving’, after the Roma legend had been taken down in the area.
Then, Damiano Tommasi was wrongly flagged offside as he rounded Lee Woon-Jae to score what should have been the game’s decisive, golden goal.
Instead, Ahn Jung-Hwan was the match-winner, heading home with just three minutes remaining to send South Korea through to the quarter-finals, where they would benefit from further favourable officiating in their win over Spain – who had two good goals disallowed.
Italy, meanwhile, were out. But they would not go quietly, claiming that Moreno’s performance was evidence of a plot to ensure the co-hosts advanced at their expense.
“He was put in place to eliminate Italy,” fumed full-back Christian Panucci, who felt that the Ecuadorian wasn’t fit to referee at the highest level – in any sense.
“He was a bandit. Also, look at the images: he was too fat to referee!
“The game ended for us after an hour. We felt we might as well have gone home there and then.
“He was only interested in seeing Korea go through. FIFA had put him there for that reason.
“Moreno was certainly an incompetent, but the greater responsibility should be taken by those who made him referee the game.”
La Gazzetta dello Sport summed up the feelings of a nation by labelling Moreno the “worst referee, ever”.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter conceded that Italy had been unlucky with poor officiating – and not just in the game against South Korea – but said that the errors were “human – not premeditated”.
However, doubts about Moreno’s integrity surfaced again just months after the World Cup.
In a game between Liga de Quito and Barcelona of Guayquil, he signalled for an additional six minutes of injury time, only to play 13 in total, during which the hosts scored twice to triumph 4-3.
There were also two contentious penalties and two red cards. However, what was most interesting was the fact that, at the time, Moreno was running for election to the local council in Quito.
Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with Barcelona president Leonardo Bohrer, who claimed that at the very least, the referee’s election campaign represented a clear conflict of interests.
The Ecuadorian Football Federation ultimately suspended Moreno for 20 matches before even FIFA opened an investigation into the official.
Moreno returned in May of the following year but was suspended again – although this time only for one match – for sending off three Deportivo Quito players in a game against Deportivo Cuenca.
Realising that his ranking – and reputation – as a referee had fallen so far that he would likely never be allowed to officiate at the highest level again, Moreno announced his retirement from football in the summer of 2003, aged 36.
“I deserved better marks and I feel that way because I think I’ve been doing a good job,” he insisted.
“With these marks, it will be difficult for me to get back my FIFA badge. That’s why retiring is my best choice.”
It was certainly the more lucrative option, as Moreno made the most of his fame in Ecuador and infamy in Italy by accepting whatever television work came his way.
He became a football analyst in his homeland, while at the same time accepting offers to make appearances on Italian comedy shows, during which he would be mocked over his ineptitude as a referee.
Moreno the referee had become a running joke but there was nothing funny about Moreno the man.
He became accustomed to the finer things in life and lived beyond his means, running up huge debts that eventually led to his fateful decision to try to smuggle heroin into America.
“He was just in over his head, and he made a very foolish choice,” his lawyer, Padden, conceded. “And now he’s going to pay for it.”
Moreno spent two years in jail – during which time he was reportedly a model prisoner – before being released in December 2012 and extradited back to Ecuador, humiliated but humbled.
When he had retired from refereeing, he had defiantly declared, “I’m leaving through the front door with my head held high. I prefer to die standing up than to live kneeling down.”
By the time of his imprisonment, there was nothing left but remorse. “I’m very sorry, from the bottom of my heart. I’m sorry.”
Maybe even Italy has forgiven him at this stage…