Romanian soccer referee Octavian Sovre was heavily criticized, then adored by millions in the space of just a few hours earlier this week.
Sovre was an assistant referee at the game between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund (2-1) in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday. After the game finished, he chased Erling Haaland down the tunnel to ask for his autograph. Sovre took out his cards and his pen and offered them to Haaland.
With players passing by and cameras all over the place, the gesture was considered highly inappropriate by football watchers around the world. Pundits and journalists, fans, and fellow referees slammed Sovre, saying he was unprofessional — an amateur, a fanboy, beneath the standards of the Champions League. After an agitated night’s sleep, Sovre woke up to a new reality in the morning.
Lionel Messi signs nine cards for a noble cause
A different story came into context when SOS Autism Bihor, a charity that provides support for children and adults with autism, let it be known on Thursday that they were the beneficiaries of these suddenly controversial autographed cards. The organization is based in Sovre’s hometown of Oradea, on the east side of Romania’s border with Hungary. Sovre has been donating memorabilia gathered during international games to the charity since 2016. SOS Autism Bihor takes care of 30 patients with severe forms of autism; 10 are children or teenagers.
Talking to Romanian sports media outlet Playsport, Sovre revealed on Thursday that he has donated nearly 250 autographs to the charity. This was just the first time his effort to get them was caught on camera immediately after a game. Some of the most valuable signatures he’s acquired over the years belong to Lionel Messi, one of the biggest stars in the history of football.
Messi was profoundly impressed when he found out after a Champions League game why the linesman was asking him to sign his cards.
“Leo listened to me and when he figured out what I wanted from him, he signed nine cards, not one or two,” Sovre said. “I wouldn’t have dared to ask for such an effort, but he was really impressed when I mentioned the people who were going to benefit from the money.”
Asked whether he told Haaland about the charity, Sovre said he didn’t have time to, “but he’ll probably learn from the media. I was called by various papers and he will surely read everything.”
Even though he’s not allowed to talk to the media based on UEFA’s regulations, Sovre took the risk and decided to open up to the press.
“I first said no, but in the end, I decided to accept a dialogue. Maybe they’ll now fine me because of these interviews, but I decided to do it no matter what. These people fighting autism need help. And not only those from my hometown, but others around Romania as well. Everything happens for a reason. Maybe now people will find out about this charity’s work.”
Football stars join parade of support
Indeed, Sovre has raised awareness for SOS Autism Bihor. With that, the biggest stars in Romanian football have been making donations, too. Their shirts, boots, gloves, and signed footballs are ready to be auctioned to help SOS Autism Bihor. Former Chelsea midfielder Gheorghe Hagi, arguably the best football player in Romania’s history, and Juventus superstar Adrian Mutu have also offered to help.
“I have no words,” SOS Autism Bihor president Simona Zlibut, told Romanian news portal gsp.ro. “Octavian Sovre never wanted publicity for what he was doing. Right now people know exactly the value of his act. I’m very grateful for all the help. All the shirts offered by former football players will be auctioned and the money will be used for our medical center. We must keep fighting the good fight,”
‘Unacceptable … matter of dignity … cameras catch everything’
Roberto Rosetti, head of UEFA’s referee committee, made it clear in a letter published Thursday by SkySports in England that game officials are not allowed to ask for autographs or shirts from players.
In a letter sent to all international refs in the aftermath of the City vs Dortmund Champions League game, Rosetti wrote that it’s “simply unacceptable” for match officials to ask favors from football players. Rosetti also demanded referees to act “with dignity,” stressing that “you are responsible for your behavior and that of your team members when on a UEFA mission … If you want to be respected as much as the players, why would you ask for their autograph or their shirt? Do they ask you for the same?”
Despite Sovre’s good intentions, Rosetti said his actions were simply unacceptable. “This is a matter of dignity and don’t forget about the number of TV cameras at UEFA matches. They catch everything.”
Sovre will now face an inquiry from UEFA. He could get fined or even suspended for his unprecedented gesture at the Champions League level.