For those who followed English football in the 1970’s, Clive Thomas was well-known. In the days when referees were less conspicuous than they are today, the mere fact one of them was ‘well-known’ had to be because he was controversial. Ask any Everton fan, preferably one of at least over 45 and they will regale tales of exasperation at a decision to rule-out a perfectly good looking winner in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Liverpool in 1977. He had done something similar in the Semi-Final in 1975 when he denied Ipswich a perfectly good goal against West Ham. Ironically, both incidents were against the same player, Brian Hamilton.
A stickler for the rules, Welsh-born Thomas was respected by FIFA and officiated in the 1974 World Cup Finals as well as the 1976 European Championships. But it was at the 1978 World Cup Finals he managed to earn a reputation as one of the most officious referees in the game.
Cue day three of the tournament and Brazil is in action. The hosts, Argentina, had taken their bow the night before, coming from a goal down to beat Hungary. This had been a nervous first showing in Buenos Aires but they were up and running. Brazil turned up at the Jose Maria Minella Stadium in Mar del Plata, in the Buenos Aires region. The stadium had been purpose built for the tournament, and had hosted the Italy v France game the day before. Now Brazil were there to meet Sweden. After having one of the finest teams ever seen in 1970, the 1974 Brazilians had been disappointing despite finishing fourth. Gone were Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson and Carlos Alberto and along with them went the samba football. Rivelino was still there and in this tournament we had our first glimpse of Zico, ‘the white Pele’. Sweden had only had to beat Norway and Switzerland to get to this stage and had a rather ageing side, captained by 35-year old Bjorn Nordqvist.
Both sides missed a host of chances, especially Brazil and then with 8 minutes before the break Tomas Sjoberg put the Swedes a goal up. Right on half-time, Reinaldo grabbed an equaliser. The second half was full of mistakes and disjointed play and remained level deep into injury time. Brazil earned a corner on the right, when the linesman ordered Nelinho to re-spot the ball as it seemed outside the corner arc. Nelinho then took the kick, and bent it with the outside of his right foot into the 6-yard box where Zico headed it in. Brazil had seemed to have won with a dramatic late goal. But just as they were celebrating everyone noticed Clive Thomas was walking off shaking his finger. Thomas had placed himself on the angle of the bye-line and the 6-yard box at the far post and once the ball went into the net Thomas blew his whistle for full-time. As he walked off he was surrounded by distraught Brazilian players yet he just waved his arms, and then with maximum pedantry he pointed to his watch signalling time up. Looking rather pleased with himself he continued to be the first person off the pitch with an air of a school-master who has just signalled the end of break-time. The Brazilians were stunned, with the Swedes ecstatic having gained a point, but Thomas was unmoved.
He later claimed that Nelinho had used up so much time taking the corner that he blew his whistle as the ball was in the air. Replays remained inconclusive as it appeared Thomas waited until the ball was in the back of the net to decide to disallow it. Remember, there were no fourth officials in those days, no board signalling time added on so no one in the stadium had any idea how much time a referee would allow at the end. Thomas maintained he told the Brazilians to get on with it, although whether any of them could understand a man from Rhondda valley is unclear.
In Thomas’s defence he wasn’t the first referee to do this in this tournament and ironically the first incident was at the same stadium the day before. Italy met France with Bernard Lacombe scoring, what was then, the fastest goal in World Cup history, before the Italians hit back with two goals. At the end of the game the French had a free-kick on the right wing near the bye-line. As they’re preparing to take it, there’s a two-man Italian wall and everyone else in the area. The French player is just about to take the kick when the referee, standing on the 6-yard box, suddenly whistles for the end of the game. Whether the French would’ve scored is uncertain and the ref on that occasion, Nicolae Rainea of Romania, certainly whistled before the kick was taken whereas Thomas didn’t. But Thomas will always be remembered for this incident, something he seemed to be very proud of.