BRITAIN’S oldest rugby referee Nando Di Matteo is preparing for the new season at the ripe old age of 87 – on a diet of Guinness and bananas.
During the past 40 years he has officiated at more than 2,500 matches — often fitting in four games a week.
Even now, when most people his age are putting their feet up, Nando will referee a match every Saturday and Sunday, running up and down the pitch for 80 minutes.
His new season begins next weekend, but The Sun recently watched him officiate at a friendly between Northants teams Wellingborough and Rushden, rivals for the past 140 years.
Supping a pint in front of the clubhouse as he watched the ref handing out a yellow card, a Wellingborough supporter said: “Nando’s wearing a knee brace, that’s new. He’s obviously feeling his age.”
But during a break in play, Nando was quick to explain: “It’s just a precaution. I’ve got no problem with my knee. Better to take the pressure off my knee before anything happens.”
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The match ended 5-24 to Rushden and the ref, who has been a pensioner for 22 years, did not even look out of breath.
In the back room of the clubhouse, Nando drank a pint of Guinness and ate a banana before revealing the secret of his amazing fitness for a man just three years away from his 90th birthday.
He says: “I go to the gym two or three times a week and I swim after each session. I also have a treadmill at home. Every couple of hours, if I’m sitting watching TV, I go and do some time on the treadmill. It is good.”
And every morning, Nando exercises a dog belonging to his granddaughter Sabrina, 28, by running around the rugby club playing fields.
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He adds: “I’d say to anyone thinking they are getting too old for sport — don’t give up. You have to keep up your fitness.
“It’s no good saying, ‘I’m going to sit at home and rest’. Also, you have to look after yourself on food and drink. That’s very important.
“I drink one Guinness after refereeing a game, no more, and eat a banana. I follow a Mediterranean diet. I always have pasta at midday with tomato or cereal, beans or lentils. Twice a week, I will have fish. Once a week, maybe on a Friday before the game, I get a nice steak, to give me protein for the day after. Also, it’s in my genes — my parents died in their mid-nineties.”
While he has embraced rugby, Nando grew up in a football- loving family in Sicily.
He says: “At 18, my father played football for Palermo in the Serie A division. Later, he worked in the office at the club. But I wasn’t very good at football.”
Nando trained as a hairdresser and in 1964 he and wife Adriana, a teacher, moved to the UK.
Their son Gino, a 58-year-old physio, played rugby at school and because Nando ran his own business he could knock off early to watch midweek matches.
Nando says with a laugh: “One day there was no referee, so I said, ‘I’ll do it’. It was the worst thing I ever did!” But the father-of-three took to being the man in the middle like a duck to water.
He says: “In 1982, I enrolled on a refereeing course in Northampton and I have never stopped. The only thing was my English — I had a problem explaining to the players what they were doing wrong.
“But I got more confident and I’d tell the players to shut up! They learned that I take no nonsense, even from the spectators. I quite happily give a red card if needed, why not? I get so cross when I see the coaches on the touchline. They want everything. I tell them, ‘Shutttupp, please’.”
Sarah Cox, who works at the club, says: “The boys here idolise Nando. They wouldn’t dare argue with him. Nando’s word is final.”
After the match, Nando takes a sip of his Guinness and says: “Today I was very kind, I only gave two yellow cards — it was a friendly.”
The highlight of his career was refereeing an over-35s international between Italy and Argentina in 1989.
Nando, then aged 53, was still the oldest on the pitch.
Asked why he did not hang up his boots and whistle when he reached the official retirement age of 65, Nando says: “That’s when I started to really enjoy it, because I had more time.
“When I was running my business I always rushed to finish the last customer’s haircut and then dash off to the game.
“Now I have time to get to the club early and to warm up and prepare.
“I used to referee three or four games a week until Covid. Now I do one or two matches a week.
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“I presume I am Britain’s oldest referee, I certainly don’t know of anyone older.
“People are trying to get me into the Guinness World Records.”
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