The Story of Gabriel Victoria, the Panamanian Sanitation Worker Refereeing World Cup Games

Steven Zuber of Switzerland challenge for the ball with Danilo of Brazil during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Every day, Gabriel Victoria wakes up at 3:40 a.m., puts on his uniform, and starts running. While this may sound like the training regimen of a player at the World Cup, Victoria’s day job doesn’t involve running after a ball, but instead behind a garbage truck.

Victoria is one of the two Panamanian referees selected by FIFA to officiate World Cup games, but because his country’s league is semi-professional, he doesn’t earn a monthly salary. Instead, he receives payment for each game, amounting to about $100 a month. To provide for his family, he works as a garbage collector in Panama City.

“I’ve been doing this job for nearly 25 years,” Victoria told local media. “As you can see, this is a job that is harmonious with my coworkers, with no stress. We’re always happy.” He starts his shift at 5 a.m. and works until noon. Then, he takes a short break before training, so that he can maintain his form.

Although passionate about soccer, he landed on refereeing by chance. He previously played in a local league (he doesn’t remember how long ago) when he received a red card. The referee, a friend of his, asked him if he wanted to officiate a game. He was curious and said yes “to see what it’s like.” He liked it so much he attended refereeing school and became certified. In 2008, he earned a nomination to be a FIFA referee, joining the ranks of the select group that officiates international games and tournaments.

His performances in local and international games as a linesman were so good that FIFA selected him to officiate in the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand in 2005, the Copa America Centenario 2016 in the US, and the Under 17 World Cup in India last year. The World Cup in Russia was the only big tournament he was missing – and his longtime dream.

“I’m grateful to God because without him the dream that John Pitti (the other Panamanian referee selected by FIFA) and I have been fighting for 44 months wouldn’t have come true,” he said to local TV.

Russia has a special significance for Victoria, since it will be the first World Cup for Panama. Recently, TV station Telemetro took him to meet the coach of the Panamanian national team, Hernan Darío Gómez, who had some words of encouragement: “I’ve seen him train here, and I’m very happy for him. We have to see each other there (in Russia). If you can, visit us, you’re another Panamanian and an important man in soccer.”

In the same show, Victoria received a surprise: a suitcase, sneakers, and a national team shirt donated by sponsors, as well as a $500 check written by an anonymous donor.

Victoria was the assistant referee for the Brazil-Switzerland game on Sunday and awaits his first designation as a linesman in the tournament.

Before he left for Russia, he said that with his dream fulfilled, he now plans to retire from officiating next year. But he already has a new goal in mind: “I’ll sign up next year with FIFA, and if the refereeing commission is interested in making me an instructor, I’ll accept the challenge.”