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Switzerland's Massimo Busacca is widely considered to be the top referee heading into the World Cup. ((Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images))

Referee Massimo Busacca's momentous season might just end with him holding the whistle in his hand at the World Cup final.

That would be some act of redemption for the Swiss, who was recently voted the world's best soccer referee despite having served a ban for aiming a rude gesture at fans during a match.

The 41-year-old Busacca acknowledges his ambition to lead out the teams at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium on July 11.

"When a top sportsman is going to do something, he wants to arrive always to the end," Busacca told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

After his error-free display in last year's Champions League final — letting play flow freely as Barcelona mastered Manchester United in the world's most-watched club match — he seemed to be the frontrunner to referee the planet's biggest sporting event.

Then, last September, Busacca was caught on camera gesturing to fans who verbally abused him at a Swiss Cup match.

"I knew it was something wrong, something bad from my side, of course," he said. "If a referee wants to stay in this family, in this job, he has to accept and live with this pressure.

"But at the end I say, I didn't kill anyone. It was just human reaction. Like a player in a game when he uses bad words."

Pressure match

The Swiss Football Association suspended Busacca for three rounds of matches, while also noting he had been provoked.

There was speculation Busacca's authority was so undermined that World Cup organizer FIFA might drop him from its elite list of referees preparing for South Africa.

But shortly after Busacca returned from his ban, FIFA showed its faith by appointing him to the most intense World Cup qualifier on the European program: Russia-Germany, a decisive group match in front of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and 84,000 fans in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.

"I think that the best message was to trust me, to give me this game immediately after," said Busacca, who sent off Germany's Jerome Boateng in his side's 1-0 win. "Then at the end of the year I was elected the best referee. That was again the best answer for me."

The honour was given by an international society of soccer historians, perhaps recognizing that Busacca combines the best qualities of his two mentors — the sound Swiss sense of Urs Meier and the rapport with players of legendary Italian referee Pier-Luigi Collina.

Busacca tries to be a psychologist, helping players by protecting them from their own intensity.

"Our duty is to prevent, not react," he explained. "Go to him and say, 'Hey, I know you're going to do something.' My job is to try to finish the game 11-against-11.

"The more I have this contact, the more it will be a benefit for the games."

'I'm not God'

While skeptical fans have long thought some refs believe themselves infallible, Busacca tells players the exact opposite.

In the documentary movie about officials at the 2008 European Championship — known internationally as Kill the Referee — Busacca says to one anguished player: "I'm not God. I make mistakes."

"I think this kind of feedback ... helps the player to calm down again. He will appreciate it," Busacca said. "The players want only that you are perfect, and it's normal. This is the level of the football today. Nobody wants to lose because it's a lot of money. A lot of money."

Yet Busacca claims not to feel pressured by the billion-dollar football industry when he is on the pitch.

"It is like to be under the water for 90 minutes, you are there concentrating on the situation. You cannot think any more [about] the media, [about] what might happen after the game if you make a mistake," he said. "It is only team A, team B: player A, player B."

To better understand those teams and players, Busacca keenly studies their form and tactics, and devours statistics from matches he has not seen to help visualize the pattern of play.

He and his regular team of assistants, linesmen Matthias Arnet and Francesco Buragina, also discuss the likely match strategy.

"You have to study before, but then the first 10 minutes of the game is crucial to understand how the teams want to play," Busacca said. "You must be ready."

3rd tourney

The Swiss referees trio will work their third straight major tournament together in South Africa, after the 2006 World Cup in Germany and Euro 2008 co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland.

They will join 29 other match official teams at their hotel near Pretoria next month.

Because of FIFA's neutrality rules, they can be considered for the final only if the Switzerland team fails to advance through the knockout stages.

Taking charge of the final would be a natural progression for Busacca, who is obliged by age rules to retire after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

He refereed the Argentina-Mexico round-of-16 match four years ago; the Sevilla-Espanyol UEFA Cup final in 2007; a memorable Germany-Turkey semifinal at Euro 2008; and then Barcelona's Champions League win last year.

But Busacca won't hear talk that he's the World Cup final favourite.

"The day you think you have arrived is the day you fall down."