The Rules Of The Game | Translation

The Rules Of The Game | Translation


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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: This episode contains explicit language. Discretion is advised. This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. 

We start today in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, in a typical middle-class neighborhood, Gonzalo Beladrich was born in 1980. And there he fell in love with soccer.

It was not an entirely chosen love. Gonzalo had two older brothers and went to an all-boys religious school. And in that context…

[Gonzalo Beladrich]: Soccer was something you didn’t have much of a choice about. You played it or you played it, because if you didn’t play, it made things more difficult. There was a matter of rejection, of pointing out. You were a fairy if you didn’t play ball…

[Daniel]: And in that world of males only, it was the worst that could happen. He started playing at the age of four, when his family joined the Club Deportivo Español. Deportivo Español was going through an unusual moment of glory. It had some 25,000 members—that’s a lot for a small neighborhood club—, it had just inaugurated a stadium, and its soccer team was in the first division for the second time in its history, playing against the best teams in the country, like Boca or River. 

[Daniel]: Deportivo Español became Gonzalo’s second home. Every weekend, the Beladrich family got into their old Renault 12 and went to spend the day at the club—Gonzalo, his two brothers, his mother and his father. Every Saturday and every Sunday, without fail. And there, while his parents played cards, Gonzalo and his brothers  learned to kick the ball.

At the club, Gonzalo watched a professional soccer match for the first time. He was 8 years old, and the memory of that day has never faded. That afternoon, Deportivo Español was playing against Deportivo Armenio, another small club that had reached the first division. Gonzalo went to the field with his father and sat in the box. That time, Español won with a last-minute goal. 

[Gonzalo]: So I began to believe that Español was always going to score a goal at the end of the game. I went to the field with a feeling like, “We are indestructible; nobody is going to beat us.”

[Daniel]: Thus began a new routine for him: Every time Español played at home, he would escape from the little field where he played with his friends to go watch the game with his father. First, in the box; later, in the lower level; and a few years later, as a teenager, in the place that would become his favorite: the upper stands, with the fans, where he would watch the entire match standing. 

Soccer became the center of his life.

[Gonzalo]:  I watched soccer all the time. I played soccer all the time. I mean, I was the typical teenager who was spinning around a soccer ball.

[Daniel]: It was a passion, uncontrolled and methodical at the same time. When he couldn’t go to the field to see Español, he played soccer with his friends at the club—wearing headphones so he could follow the match on the radio. And during the week, he spent his time filling a notebook with pages and pages of analysis. He imagined himself a sports journalist, pasting newspaper clippings, evaluating plays and players, recording the number of goals, and even scoring the work of the referees.

Gonzalo was fascinated by the referees. He was the only one among his friends.  He couldn’t take his eyes off those men in black who ran alongside the players, directing the game. Just like with soccer, what he felt for game refereeing was an inexplicable passion.

As with soccer, what he felt for refereeing was an inexplicable passion.

[Gonzalo]: How did my love for refereeing come about? I don’t know. The birth of a love always seems to be an unknown.

[Daniel]: On the field, he followed them with his eyes throughout the game, wanting to record in his head everything they did: how many cards they issued, how they interpreted the plays, or whether they were one of those referees who tried to balance the fouls between the two teams.

[Gonzalo]: I was gradually selecting which were the referees that I felt did a good job, the ones I wanted to be like. And the others, the ones I didn’t want to be like.

[Daniel]: His favorite was Javier Castrilli. 

[Sports announcer]: Castrilli gives the order… All over again… yellow for el Mono. 

[Daniel]: Gonzalo followed him since the beginning of his career, when he made his debut directing a match for Deportivo Español against Estudiantes de la Plata in 1991. He liked that he was a relentless referee, who read the plays well, was always close to the ball, whistled slowly, and above all, was not impressed by the big teams.

Castrilli never went unnoticed.


[Journalist]: Now a yellow card for Rivarola… The Castrilli thing is unspeakable. This man wants to take over the show. What an outrage, this Castrilli.

[Gonzalo]: And he was the referee who magnetized. Castrilli directed all eyes to Castrilli, all flashes to Castrilli. A rare spectacle.

[River supporters]: Castrilli, son of a bitch, the bitch that gave birth to you…

[Daniel]: You either loved Castrilli or you hated him.

And Gonzalo loved him. Or, well… he admired him a lot. He wanted to be like him. That’s why, on his club’s little soccer field, on the sidewalk outside  his house, at school, every time he played soccer with his friends, he always asked to be the referee. And like his idol, he took the task very seriously. He even put together his own set of red and yellow cards to admonish his friends. He also bought a whistle, so he wouldn’t have to shout when he wanted to stop the game.

The scene was somewhat unusual.

[Gonzalo]: There is a rule for neighborhood matches, the ones they call vacant lots games: they’re played without a referee. So hearing a whistle, turning around and seeing some 12-year-old kids running after a ball and one of them refereeing was a strange sight.

[Daniel]: Refereeing was another way of playing ball for him. Besides, he liked the vertigo of the irreversible: On the field, things happen only once and the referee has to trust his eyes. If he calls a penalty, if he disallows a goal, he has to be very sure of what he saw.

[Gonzalo]: And that puts you in a state of… let’s say of not letting down. You know when you are driving on a highway and you cannot relax for a moment. Because in one second you can screw up big-time. Well, there’s some of that in a soccer match that makes refereeing an adrenaline rush. 

[Daniel]: And that adrenaline was addictive. That’s why, when he pictured himself as a grownup, he could only see himself one way: like Castrilli, dressed in black, running around a professional soccer field, directing the game.

He dreamed of being a referee and was willing to do everything possible to achieve it.

Except for one thing.

We’ll be back after a break.

[Daniel]: Hello, ambulantes.

There are stories so big, so complex, so powerful… that they cannot be told in just one episode. That’s why we created CENTRAL, the new series channel from Radio Ambulante Studios. Four episodes of our first production are already available.

[Archivo Bukele]: People hear populism and say: populism. Does anyone want a populist president?

It’s the story of Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, and perhaps the most popular politician in Latin America…

[Archivo Bukele]: No one. No one? Well, I do.

How did he convince a society to give him unlimited power? And what happens when the promises of democracy no longer matter?

You can listen to Bukele: The Man From Los Sueños by searching for Central on your favorite podcast apps or by visiting

Thank you.

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our producer Emilia Erbetta brings us the story.

[Emilia Erbetta]: Gonzalo’s parents weren’t particularly happy about their youngest son’s obsession with refereeing. 

[Gonzalo]: I think that it is not the dream career that fathers and mothers have for their sons and daughters.

[Emilia]: They thought it was a whim. 

[Gonzalo]: They thought, because of my age, it was something that would pass. I don’t know, like a kid who says he wants to be an astronaut.

[Emilia]: But Gonzalo grew up, and the desire to be a referee never left.

At seventeen, when he was about to finish school, his mother asked him two things: To choose a more serious, more traditional course of study to do along with the course on refereeing, and to take a vocational test. To her, being a referee wasn’t much more than a hobby.

In one of the tests, he was asked to draw how he imagined himself in ten years, when he would be 27. 

[Gonzalo]: Obviously, I drew a picture of myself dressed as a referee, with my arm outstretched and with a card in my hand.

[Emilia]: The psychologist’s report was forceful: Gonzalo had no doubts as to his vocation. But the report also mentioned a conflict. Gonzalo still has a fairly clear recollection of what it said:

[Gonzalo]: “Gonzalo is torn between what he wants and what he should be, and that is why he imposes or requires himself to study a more legitimized career, in addition to that of a soccer referee…”

[Emilia]: This issue of following a more traditional field of study was what his mother wanted. And she was the voice of authority in her family. So when he finished school, Gonzalo enrolled in a referee course and a program for a law degree.

If being a referee didn’t work out, maybe he could be a judge.

Back then, as now, the world of Argentinean soccer had one key geographical point: Viamonte Street, in the center of the city of Buenos Aires. There, concentrated in less than 700 meters, were the headquarters of the Argentinean Soccer Association, known as AFA, and the two referee schools: the Argentinean Association of Referees and the Sports Referees Union of the Argentinean Republic, SADRA. Gonzalo joined the latter. From now on, we will call it “the union.”

The course lasted one year. There were three classes a week: one was practice, which basically consisted of running around an athletics track for 12 minutes, and two were theory, in which the instructors broke down the soccer regulations point by point, with a book that compiled all the rules of the game.

[Gonzalo]: A big heavy thing like this, with comments, explanations, with drawings and everything. And it was spectacular. Because it was like, “Oh, right, this is how it is. The ball measures this much, it weighs this much. The field of play must have these markings… If there is no corner flag, the match is not played…”

[Emilia]: In the classroom there was a magnetic board where the instructors simulated different plays with magnets. Those theory classes were his favorite. 

[Gonzalo]: For someone who wanted to be a soccer referee, beginning to learn those details was a beautiful thing.

[Emilia]: He also had to take several exams. He had an hour to answer about ten questions about hypothetical situations during a game. Some were unusual. 

[Gonzalo]: Well, what happens if a… a player hits the goalpost, and when he kicks the ball, it punctures or explodes and enters the goal punctured or deflated? What ruling do you call? Where?

[Emilia]: He had to go to the union headquarters following a strict dress code, with a jacket and tie. His was a small class, with about 20 students, including only one girl. The rest of his classmates were all older men—he was 18 years old at the time.

As part of the course, they were expected to referee on weekends. These were almost always indoor soccer or lower division games. The AFA did not pay for this work; it barely covered his travel expenses. And although it was not mandatory to do so, everyone knew it was a plus. So Gonzalo accepted all the games that were assigned to him.

After class, the talk about soccer always continued at the corner bar near the union, which was also frequented by professional referees, managers, and journalists. In those conversations, drinking coffee until nightfall, Gonzalo felt he had finally found others like himself, obsessed with that part of soccer that seemed to interest no one.

[Gonzalo]: And for some fanatics like us, who loved to talk about refereeing and didn’t have anyone who was interested, it was like, “Today I finally have a space where I can talk about all these things.” And that did generate a good vibe, and each person would say which referees they liked, and we discussed plays.

[Emilia]: And even though he liked those talks and felt comfortable with his classmates, he couldn’t consider them his friends. The thing is that the road to becoming a referee in the first division was steep and narrow. Gonzalo and his classmates knew that once they received their diploma, only a few of them, or perhaps none, would ever referee a game in the most important category of Argentinean soccer. Much less an international match. The opportunities were few, and the qualified referees were many—about 7,000 at the time.

[Gonzalo]: So it was a matter of camaraderie, but at the same time it’s either you or me. There were more or less 20 of us in the classroom, and it was obvious that not all 20 were going to make it.

[Emilia]: And to “make it,” graduating was not enough. He had to stand out… And Gonzalo did. Although the youngest in his group, he had the best test average, he did well on the physical tests, and had perfect attendance. He never once missed class. Not even when his mother died.

It was a Saturday night. His mother, Silvia, was 46 years old and had been badly ill for months, suffering from depression and alcoholism, locked up in her room, barely talking to her husband and children. Gonzalo and his father were at home when she fell apart in the bathroom. They called an ambulance, but by the time it arrived, it was too late. She died from internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis. Gonzalo held her in her arms the whole time while they waited for the doctors.

Two days later, when the funeral was over, he put on his jacket and tie and attended class at the union. 

[Gonzalo]: There was something about… not wanting to be there

[Emilia]: There, at home… 

[Gonzalo]: Not wanting to be there because of the sadness, of course. But mostly because of the strangeness. 

[Emilia]: The strangeness of returning home now that his mother was not there. 

[Gonzalo]: And one of the ways of not being in that strange place was, “Well, today is Monday and I have to go to class… and I’m also going… I’m going to try to think about something else.”

[Emilia]: In the union classroom, he could stop his head, immerse himself in the rules. There, where they taught him what could and could not be done on a soccer field, he could escape the pain for a while.

With the death of his mother, life at home changed. She had always been the one who set the rules. His father worked outside the house all day, and besides, he had never shown much interest in setting limits for his three children. 

[Gonzalo]: So I fell that there was also some kind of mix between the pain and… and being lost, you know? To say you are left without a mother before you’re 20 years old, and it’s like, “Where… which way should I go?”

[Emilia]: As the weeks went by, that confusion, that not knowing where to go, opened the door to something else: a desire to start living more freely. He was 18 years old and all Buenos Aires was his. Without his mother’s control, he began to explore the city at night, especially after leaving the union.

He started with movies. On Fridays after class, he would go with his classmates to the corner bar to have coffee and talk about refereeing, and when it got dark and the others went home, Gonzalo would walk alone to the theaters downtown. There, he would look at the billboard and choose a movie. At first, he did it purely by intuition. If he liked the title or if the synopsis seemed interesting, he would go in.

But before that, he made a a strategic stop at a McDonald’s.

[Gonzalo]: I would go in, head directly to the McDonalds bathroom, get into one of the stalls with my backpack, take out a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and some sneakers. Then I packed the suit in there, all rolled up. And I would leave the bathroom dressed in a completely different way from the way I went in. 

[Emilia]: Taking off the suit and putting on his teenager uniform again was a kind of ritual, a necessary passage for his metamorphosis. In that bathroom, Gonzalo went back to being a civilian, in a way. And though he wasn’t doing anything wrong, for some reason he felt that someone was going to find him in the middle of transforming. But no. Over time, he realized that in the downtown area of the city, blending in with all the other people, he could be invisible.

He developed an almost compulsive cinephilia. He went to the movies three or four times a week. At the movies, he could get emotional, cry… fantasize about other worlds. 

[Gonzalo]: There I could be however I wanted to be. I could imagine, or I could project, whatever I wanted. So there was something there… something indestructible.

[Emilia]: A place where he could be however he wanted. He had been searching for something like that for a long time. That was why, little by little, those nights in the downtown movie theaters were becoming something else.

Now he didn’t always go straight home when the movie was over. With his backpack hanging on his back, with his referee’s clothes hidden in that shell, he began to explore another dimension of Buenos Aires at night: the yire, the seduction between men on the street. 

[Gonzalo]: I did that street yire, which from the outset was not a pickup yire. It was more like walking around and getting to know and seeing what it was about, because I already knew that I liked men… 

[Emilia]: He had known it since he was about 11 or 12 years old. He liked being around them, looking at them.

[Gonzalo]: But I also had the feeling of thinking, “This is going to pass. The boys will pass.”

[Emilia]: But he turned 13, 14, 15… And no, the boys stayed.

That’s why he was there now, in downtown Buenos Aires, getting to know those forms of street seduction that were new to him. He had always learned things that way: by looking at them in detail, meticulously, until he understood the logic. That’s how it had been with soccer and its rules, and now it was no different.

[Gonzalo]: And then I began to realize what the looks were like, what it was like to stop and look in a storefront window and see in the reflection whether someone was looking at you. 

[Emilia]: Sometimes the boldest ones faced him directly. 

[Gonzalo]: For me, as a teenager who was still doing an exploratory study, that scared me a little, I remember.

[Emilia]: But the fascination of discovering that world of new codes was stronger than any fear. He felt that what he was experiencing was indelible. 

[Gonzalo]: Something was happening that would not happen again. Something very typical of that time, and that for me was also new because it was unlike anything I knew.

[Emilia]: And although those night excursions took up more and more of his time, he didn’t talk about them with anyone. Not with his brothers, or with his friends, or with his father. He didn’t know how to do it, what to tell them.

[Gonzalo]: The fact that I liked men was very conflicting for me, because I had no reference. Who do I talk to about this? Who do I tell?

[Emilia]: He didn’t know how to come out of the closet. He was afraid of how people would react. Not just his family or his friends. Mostly, he was terrified to think what could happen to his future as a referee if someone in the world of soccer found out that he liked men.

[Gonzalo]: This was something that conflicted me a lot, because I knew that soccer and homosexuality were two very difficult things to match.

[Emilia]: It wasn’t just his own feeling. He didn’t know anyone in soccer who had come out of the closet. On the field, the fans always sang songs that called the opposing team fairies. And the Coach of the National Team at the time, Daniel Passarella, had said in an interview that he would never call up a homosexual player. 

[Emilia]: And on television, you would hear things like this: 


Tele Archive 1994

[Longobardi]: Can a homosexual play soccer at the level of an international team? Is it physically possible?

[TN2]: “Stop shrinking, you fairy, put your leg out forcefully” is something you often hear on all the fields in the country, highlighting one of the most important values of soccer: manliness.

[Emilia]: Besides, there was a more specific case:

[Gonzalo]: There was a referee who was said to be gay, and the things that were said were creepy. 

[Emilia]: That referee was Fabián Madorrán.

Gonzalo was drawn to him from the first time he saw him judge a game. 

[Gonzalo]: When you saw him on the field, he was a guy you couldn’t take your eyes off. He was very elegant in the way he ran. Agile. Very fast Very young. Very good carriage.

[Emilia]: Watching him run across the field, he was reminded of the gazelles he had once seen in a documentary. On the field, Madorrán was like a graceful, fast, hypnotic animal.

Madorrán had become a first division referee in 1997. A year later, he was already judging international games. He was a high-profile, theatrical referee, who did not hesitate to expel a player, and who did not mind having the camera follow him during a game.

Gonzalo wasn’t the only one who couldn’t take his eyes off him. Madorrán was not only on everyone’s lips because of the number of red cards he gave out, or the way he argued with the coaches and the players, but also because of the things that were said about his personal life, especially about his alleged homosexuality. In the hallways of the union, at the café on the corner, even in the classroom, Gonzalo heard the rumors about the men Madorrán dated or the discos he went to. And it wasn’t just rumors. They also made fun of him and made homophobic jokes that I won’t repeat.

When this happened, Gonzalo stayed put, unable to say or do anything. 

[Gonzalo]: I couldn’t raise my hand and say, “I think you’re being homophobic,” no, no, no…

[Emilia]: But every taunt he heard about Madorrán felt like an intimate, personal blow. 

[Gonzalo]: An 18- or 19-year-old kid like me in the classroom, who was dealing with coming out of the closet and, secondly, dealing with how to reconcile that with being a referee, was like being hit in the head with a club. 

[Gonzalo]: And besides making me anxious, it took me to a place of… of saying “Oh, so no, this is not the way to go.” 

[Emilia]: It made him doubt his future as a referee, something he had always been so sure of. 

[Gonzalo]: I mean, everything I had experienced from a very young age as a pleasant place, as a fun space. In order to do this, I have to give that up or I have to sweep it under a rug.

[Emilia]: He didn’t want to have to choose between his vocation and his desires. But if a referee as successful as Fabián Madorrán, who was one of the best in Argentina, couldn’t live his sexuality freely, how could he?

We’ll be back after a break.

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. 

Emilia Erbetta continues the story.

[Emilia]: Gonzalo completed the refereeing course in December 1998. It had been a turbulent year—his mother had died, he had begun to explore the gay nightlife of Buenos Aires, and at the same time he had taken the first step toward fulfilling his childhood dream.

And he had taken it in the right direction: his perfect attendance, his test grades, and the instructors’ good opinion of him placed him in a very good position for what was to come. Now he had to take a course to validate his degree at the Argentinean Football Association, the AFA. This was essential if he wanted to referee in the first division.

This course did not have a fixed duration. It could stretch out for a year, two… or even more. That depended on the new refereeing positions the AFA was opening up. And when that happened, Gonzalo had a good chance because he was first in order of merit to enter.

But something in him had broken. A certain eagerness he had always felt for refereeing. It was not just the homophobia or the mockery of Fabián Madorrán. He was also beginning to realize that there was a lot going on that was rather shady. He noticed, for example, that the system to enter the AFA was not very transparent, and it did not have much to do with refereeing technique. In fact, he wondered why he was first in order of merit if no one had ever gone to see him referee.

[Gonzalo]: Because I never missed a class. Because when someone was needed to referee free futsal games, I volunteered and went to referee for free.

[Emilia]: Until then, he had always thought of refereeing as a noble thing, another way of playing soccer and, in a way, an expression of justice. For him, the referees were the persons in charge of ensuring a fair game.

And all those characteristics came together in a special way in his childhood idol, whom we already mentioned at the beginning of this episode.


[Informativo Telenoche]: Javier Castrilli, enamored of his authoritarian persona? Or a Don Quixote of the law? Or maybe he has both in his personality. 

[Emilia]: They called Castrilli the Sheriff. He had earned that reputation by issuing countless red cards. Always serious, kind of angry, since his debut Castrilli had starred in several scandals. Two remained in Argentinean soccer memory. The first was in 1992, when he expelled four River players in a game against Newells. That day, River lost 5-0. And the second, in 1996, when he expelled Diego Maradona, who played for Boca, during a game against José Luis Chilavert’s Vélez.

After the expulsion, and in the middle of a tumult of players, journalists and police, Maradona approached him to ask for an explanation, while Castrilli remained unflappable. 


[Diego Maradona]: Explain to me. I am a player… Explain to me why. Explain to me why. Mister, are you dead? You are not dead, explain to me, please, I beg you… We are speaking as men, as human beings…

[Navarro Montoya]: He won’t answer you…

[Emilia]: In fact, he did not answer.

Although he was the most famous referee on the continent, and a model for Gonzalo and his classmates in the union, Gonzalo saw that Castrilli’s way of refereeing was highly resisted by the AFA.

[Gonzalo]: They did not want Castrilli to be our model, because they were looking to train referees with a slightly lower profile.

[Emilia]: Gonzalo had heard it hundreds of times in the union classrooms: the best referee should be invisible.

In late 1998, when he returned from the World Cup in France, Castrilli denounced corruption and lack of transparency in Argentinean refereeing. In the media, the Judiciary, and even in Congress, he stated that top referees received instructions to let the matches go on without the complication of severely enforced regulations. None of his colleagues accompanied him in the complaint. Isolated and alone in his crusade, Castrilli resigned from the AFA in October 1998, seven years after his debut in the first division.

Gonzalo, who was already feeling in crisis with regard to refereeing, was deeply shaken by Castrilli’s resignation. He thought that everything he denounced was true. He himself had once been confronted by an old referee at the union gate.

[Gonzalo]: And he would grab you by the arm like this and say, “Listen to me kid, if you show more than four yellow cards, the person who is at fault is you, eh, not the players.” So what they were telling you was this: “Steer the games.”

[Emilia]:  Steer the games: Don’t be an obstacle, try to make everyone happy. And most importantly, go unnoticed.

In January 1999, four months after his mother’s death, Gonzalo, his father and one of his brothers went on vacation to Mar del Plata, a typical summer destination for the Argentinean middle class.

They stayed at a hotel facing the sea, and they were there, trying to mitigate the sadness of mourning the death of his mother, when Gonzalo heard that Castrilli would give a talk at another hotel, very close to where they were staying.

Of course, he was going to go see him. But also, he would try to deliver a handwritten letter that he wrote.

[Gonzalo]: Two sheets on both sides. A very long letter. I introduce myself, I tell him that I was already a soccer referee, that I was a trainee at AFA, that he had been my model. That his stepping down from refereeing made a great impact on me. That in the AFA they tell us all the things that he said they told us. And I gave him a… a phone number.

[Emilia]: During the talk, he could think of nothing else. He had the envelope with the letter in his pocket, and the only thing that mattered to him was finding the right moment to deliver it. It would not be easy. After the allegations of the previous year, Castrilli was sought-after by journalists, and Gonzalo would have to make his way through the crowd if he wanted to have a chance. 

[Gonzalo]: And when he’s through, I walk over. He was with some journalists, and I said to him, “Javier, how are you? I would like to give you this letter; I hope you would read it.” “Of course,” he took it, and I left. That was all the contact I had with Javier Castrilli; it lasted in all… it lasted ten or fifteen seconds.

[Emilia]: When he left the hotel, he walked to the beach and went in the ocean. He was feeling pretty euphoric.

Months later, Gonzalo was sleeping when his father woke him up with the phone in his hand.

[Gonzalo]: “Son, son, wake up. A call for you,” and he says, “Castrilli.

[Emilia]:  Gonzalo was surprised, but not too much. 

[Gonzalo]: I was convinced that… that Javier Castrilli was going to call me after… after reading my letter, precisely because of its content. What could happen after the call? That’s something else. But it was going to be meaningful to him.

[Emilia]:  They talked for a few minutes. Castrilli told him that he had liked his letter very much and asked him about his experience as a young referee. Who his instructors were, what games he had refereed. They agreed to meet, but did not specify anything. Gonzalo didn’t tell him at the time, but he didn’t want to just talk about refereeing. He needed something else, something that no one else could give him: advice.

Two months later, in May 1999, Gonzalo heard that Castrilli was going to referee at the finals of the Interior League of Uruguay, in Colonia. He went there by boat, crossing the Río de La Plata, to see him referee once more, because, after his resignation from the AFA, Castrilli could no longer referee in Argentina. They had not spoken again after that telephone conversation, and Gonzalo did not dare call him. He didn’t want to be a nuisance.

However, they did meet in Colonia, and Castrilli said that he could go watch the game as his guest and even accompany him in the pre-game with the linesmen in the locker room. Gonzalo accepted. He was excited. Without planning it, he was fulfilling a dream.

He returned to Buenos Aires right after the game. And although he had spent an incredible day, close to his idol, what he had always wanted, on the return trip on the ship he felt more and more anxious. He couldn’t help thinking that all his projects were now in jeopardy. 

[Gonzalo]: I found it more and more difficult to have a career in the AFA. In that dirty AFA. And being out of the closet at the same time. All that was a combination that I was realizing… that it was going to be very difficult. 

[Emilia]:  In recent weeks, the rumors about Fabián Madorrán’s homosexuality had again become very loud. And the talk was no longer just among referees. In April 1999, El Gráfico, one of Argentina’s best-selling sports magazines, featured the topic on one of its covers. What until then had been a locker room rumor was now hanging in newsstands all over the country. The cover showed a photo of Madorrán and a quote from him that said, “I cried a lot when they called me homosexual.

A few days later, he spoke about the matter on a television program, Virtual Soccer. This is Madorrán:


Madorrán archive

[Fabián Madorrán]: Well, enough, stop questioning Fabián Madorrán. I would like to appear in the sports media because someone is questioning my way of refereeing because I made a mistake calling a penalty or an expulsion, and not because of this issue of sexuality that has nothing to do with the profession of soccer…

[Emilia]: Gonzalo wanted to talk about all this with Castrilli. After their meeting in Uruguay, he felt that he had enough confidence to do it. So he called him and asked him to meet. Castrilli invited him to dinner at his home. They scheduled it for a few days later.

When he got there, they talked for a while about the game in Uruguay and about the complaints Castrilli had made to the judiciary. Gonzalo made an effort to follow the conversation, but he was desperate to change the subject.

At one point, Castrilli asked him whether he was willing to go on television and talk about the irregularities he had seen in the AFA. Maybe they could hide his face or distort his voice. 

[Gonzalo]: And while chatting about it, I tell him, “Javier, I have no problem doing that. What I’m having a hard time with is knowing how to deal with something else.” “With what?” Javier asks me. And then, almost as a kind of knee-jerk response, I tell him, “I am homosexual.”

[Emilia]: Castrilli was silent for a few seconds. 

[Gonzalo]: By the expression on his face, I recognize that he understands what I am telling him, that I am not only telling him what my sexual orientation is, but what I am telling him is: “I am homosexual and I am an AFA referee.”

[Emilia]: Seeing Castrilli’s reaction, Gonzalo felt relieved. 

[Gonzalo]: I felt like two tons of titanium were being lifted off of each one of my shoulder blades, like relaxing and saying, “OK,  I was able to talk about this topic with someone from the world of refereeing,” something I had not been able to do until then. And second, at that moment I also felt accompanied… even understood. 

[Emilia]: Castrilli still recalls that moment. He told me about that conversation when I called him a few days after interviewing Gonzalo.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and he had just a short time to talk to me on the phone. That’s the reason for the audio quality. He told me he doesn’t remember too many details and didn’t want to say anything that might be untrue, but some things did stick with him. Especially Gonzalo’s state of mind.

[Javier Castrilli]: I noticed he was sort of dejected, you know? That’s why I thanked him, I thanked him for trusting me, for talking to me about something as delicate as intimacy.

[Emilia]:  As delicate as intimacy. Castrilli saw in Gonzalo a fragile boy, the age of his own children, who was trusting him with a secret.

He also remembers that they talked about Madorrán. For Castrilli, all the things they said about his homosexuality were aimed at slowing down his career, because he was rising very quickly.

[Castrilli]: The world of refereeing is a very ungrateful, very cruel world. And it is very cannibalistic. They’re always after someone. Anyone who is standing out in some way. It seems like they are looking to see where they can attack him to… to neutralize him.

[Emilia]: It was a way to damage his reputation.

[Castrilli]: And in that environment he can also be ruled out by saying, “Oh, he’s queer,” so it’s on everyone’s lips and it’s a way of isolating the person. Why? Because then everyone who is with him, of course they’re all a bunch of queers. Many, for fear of that, cut Madorrán off.

[Emilia]: In other words, they wouldn’t hang out with him; they avoided him.

[Gonzalo]: They didn’t want to be the referees who were with that fairy Madorrán. 

[Emilia]: In the middle of this conversation, Gonzalo dared to say out loud, for the first time, something he had been thinking for several months. 

[Gonzalo]: “In a context that first of all is not so transparent in terms of how refereeing works, and on top of that it’s so homophobic…

I don’t know whether… whether I want to go on.”

[Emilia]: Castrilli knew that Gonzalo admired him, so he had to be careful with the words he chose.

[Castrilli]: So I… I told him that he was right to have doubts about being a referee. I validated his doubt and led him to ask himself whether it was worth investing time, investing suffering, in something that was not clear to him.

[Gonzalo]: Javier tells me, “You are right to doubt. Why are you going to give these vicious guys 15 or 20 years of your life if, on top of that, they don’t guarantee you anything?” 

[Emilia]: With that question, Gonzalo felt that Castrilli opened a door for him to leave—to escape. 

[Gonzalo]: When Javier told me that, I felt very relieved. I think that was the moment when I made the decision to give up refereeing.

[Emilia]: It was clear that coming out of the closet and pursuing a career in the AFA were not compatible. And he was not willing to give up his happiness to the same people who made Madorrán’s life impossible. If he had to choose between the two things he desired, he was willing to do it. It wasn’t what he wanted, but since his mother’s death, he had understood something.

[Gonzalo]: With her departure, with her death, this question comes up: Death is not some abstract thing; it is very concrete. So how long am I going to go on not living what I want to live, repressing what I no longer want to repress?

[Emilia]: It was little by little, but there was no return. First, he began by refusing games he was assigned to referee on Saturdays. He preferred to continue exploring the Buenos Aires nightlife—the movies, the yire, the gay clubs of Buenos Aires at the close of the 20th century. When he didn’t go out, he would chat until dawn on an MIRC channel, a chat room where he could talk with other boys his age.

At the end of that year, when he was 19, he was told that the AFA validation course was completed and a new crop of referees would now take over. Since he had placed first in order of merit during the union course, he knew he had a good chance of getting in. All he had to do was take one physical testthe Cooper test, which consists of running for 12 minutes around a track. 

[Gonzalo]: And when I was running in the middle of the… in the middle of the Cooper test, in those 12 minutes, I left the track. I decided to get out of the game.

[Emilia]: He knew that what he was doing was final. That he wasn’t going to get a second chance. There was only one way to be a professional referee, and he was leaving it behind. Sad, with a slightly broken heart, he walked to the exit. Without speaking to anyone, he took a bus home, and when he arrived, he went up to his father’s room, where the only telephone was, sat on the bed, and called one of the instructors.

[Gonzalo]: And I told him, “Miguel, I don’t want to continue.” And the instructor Miguel said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, then I respect it.”

[Emilia]: He didn’t ask any questions. The conversation lasted no more than a minute.

[Gonzalo]: So in a one-minute conversation, a lifelong dream was shut down.

[Emilia]: Giving up refereeing was giving up soccer. From one moment to the next, Gonzalo abandoned the game that had been the center of his life until then. He stopped refereeing, going to the field, to the club, to play with his friends once a week. He put away the clothes he had worn to referee on weekends. He didn’t even watch soccer on television. He cut it off at the root, because he felt it was the only way to cope with the grief. His second grief in such a short time.

[Gonzalo]: Leaving refereeing was giving up a childhood dream. And I didn’t leave it because I didn’t like refereeing. I left it because it was a space absolutely hostile to sexual orientations that are not heterosexual, and where there was no possibility of living this lifestyle freely and with joy.

[Emilia]: Without soccer, he sought out new pleasures. He continued going to movies, dances, and recitals, and he enrolled for a degree in Psychology. He was no longer interested in being a lawyer. Suddenly, a world of possibilities opened up to him on his own terms. 

[Gonzalo]: The maternal law that had governed what was allowed and disallowed in the family is now gone for me. The AFA law that governs what is allowed and disallowed in the AFA is also gone. Now I want to live my homosexuality freely and I want to be the happiest person possible. 

[Emilia]: He felt liberated.

[Gonzalo]: It’s done. I don’t have to go unnoticed anymore. I don’t need to. I can pick up another man at a yire. I can be in a relationship with another man. And I don’t have to be accountable to anyone for that. It seems simple and like an obvious thing to say, but it wasn’t that obvious.

[Emilia]: And in the years that followed, Gonzalo did all that. He got a degree in Psychology, he started teaching in schools, he went to live alone, he came out of the closet with his friends, with his father, his brothers. And he fell in love one, two, three… several times.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t miss soccer. He did. For a long time, soccer came back to him at night, like a ghost from past lives. Sometimes he dreamed that he was playing soccer, or that he was refereeing a game.

[Gonzalo]: I always woke up feeling anxious. They were anxious dreams. They were not pleasant dreams, even though refereeing had always been a time of fun or me.

[Emilia]: He had lost something he loved very much, and he didn’t know whether he would be able to get it back.

In late July of 2004, five years after abandoning his career as a referee, Gonzalo was working at a call center when he learned of the death of Fabián Madorrán.

That referee who had been chosen by his colleagues as the best in 1999, the one who made Gonzalo think of a gazelle when he saw him running across the field, the one who had spoken in the media to deny his homosexuality, committed suicide one winter morning, in the province of Córdoba. He was no longer a referee. The AFA had fired him a year earlier for “issues related to physical fitness and technical evaluations,” as they said in an official statement.

Gonzalo cried silently, alone in front of the computer screen where he had read the news. He cried for Madorrán, but in a way also for himself.

[Gonzalo]: It was… in a horrible way, a confirmation that the decision had not been a wrong one.

[Emilia]: He didn’t know why Madorrán had committed suicide. The media talked about debts and a gambling addiction. But he was sure of one thing: at the time of his greatest success, his sexuality had been used against him, as an accusation, by his rivals. 

[Español fans]

[Emilia]: Gonzalo began gradually to return to soccer through his first love: Deportivo Español. In 2007, eight years after he last setting foot on it, he returned to the field to see his beloved team, which was no longer in the first division. In those years, the club had not only been relegated; it had also gone through bankruptcy and was barely recovering. The game ended 0-0, but standing there in the stands, he discovered that there was something intact inside him. 

[Gonzalo]: Returning to the field was recognizing that I am still as much of a fan of Deportivo Español as I was when I was five or six, seven years old. I’m still obsessed with it. It was like saying once again, “I like being here.”

[Emilia]: It took him another seven years to play again. In 2014, a friend invited him to join an amateur league called Gays Passionate about Soccer. The name seemed so incredible to him that he wanted to try, and joined a team called Boomerang.

[Gonzalo]: We were terrible; we were always the worst; we didn’t train. It was more like getting together to kick a ball around and have a beer afterwards. But we had a lot of fun with that, and it was great because it was a team where there were homosexuals, heterosexuals, women, trans people… It was a sort of beautiful jungle. Well, one day they were needing a referee.

[Emilia]: So almost by chance, Gonzalo was once again faced with the possibility of refereeing at a soccer match, 18 years after his last time.

His first impulse was to say no. He didn’t know whether he could do it. Furthermore, it seemed unethical to referee a game in the same league where he played. The others convinced him with an argument: Boomerang was in the B league. They were so bad that they were going to stay there. And this was an A-league game.

Gonzalo searched his house for the clothes he had worn to referee the AFA matches. He knew exactly where they were. During those years, he had moved many times, he had thrown away many things, but he had never been able to get rid of that uniform—the shorts, the t-shirt, the black socks, the wristband where he carried the cards. Although he had turned 37, he checked and the uniform still fit. A little tighter, but it worked.

The night before the game, he couldn’t sleep. 

[Gonzalo]: And yes… I was nervous, I was very anxious. And I was very anxious because… because I wanted to referee well. I wanted… I wanted to play a good game… and, well, it was a great game.

[Emilia:] It was a tight match, which ended in 1-0 and with one player sent off. And when he was on the field…

[Gonzalo]: What happened was something similar to what had happened the day I saw Español again, saying, “Ah, yes, I liked this and I still like it. Now I remember why I did all that when I was 18, 19, 20. This was the reason,” and that reason was the fun of playing soccer dressed as a soccer referee.

[Emilia]: What he had imagined at 17, when he made a drawing of himself with the uniform, the whistle and his hand raised for a vocational test, had finally arrived in the most unexpected way. The world had fortunately changed, even if just a little. And so had he.

[Daniel]: To date, in professional Argentinean soccer there are no referees or players who publicly identify as gay men. The situation is different in women’s soccer.

Gonzalo wrote a book about his story. It is called Fuera de Juego. He remains in touch with Javier Castrilli and plays mixed soccer every Sunday.

Many thanks to Mariano Vespa for his collaboration in this story.

Emilia Erbetta is a producer for Radio Ambulante and lives in Buenos Aires. This episode was edited by Camila Segura. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán, with original music by Ana.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program. 



Emilia Erbetta

Camila Segura

Bruno Scelza

Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán

Ana Tuirán

Daniel Chonillo


Episode 16