Top European referees have emphasised not only how UEFA's winter course prepares them diligently for assignments in the knockout stages of Europe's major competitions – but also how such gatherings help them to knit together as a European team, exchange ideas, and learn.
The Mediterranean resort of Antalya in Turkey is playing host this week to the referees who will see action in the closing phase of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League this spring, as well as the select dozen who will officiate at UEFA EURO 2012 in the summer. The referees examine match situations, test their fitness and swap experiences, all with the aim of improving the standards that have helped them reach the summit of their chosen profession.
"The winter course is one of the highlights of the year," said Englishman Howard Webb, who took charge of the FIFA World Cup final and UEFA Champions League final in 2010, and will be a member of the EURO team in Poland and Ukraine. "It comes at a really crucial stage of the UEFA season, because the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League all begin again in mid-February after the winter break.
"There are some crucial games coming up, so getting together at the end of January gives us a chance to review what has happened in the group stages so far, to share good practice, and we learn from things that have happened. We can chat with colleagues and it's good to see some friends as well."
One of the messages underlined by UEFA to the referees is uniformity in decision-making – a purpose of this, the 20th UEFA Advanced Course for Top Referees, which Scotland's Craig Thomson, another EURO match official, fully supports. "This course is important in terms of consistency," he explained. "That's what the clubs want, it's what the players want, and it's what the spectators want. A consistent level of approach in decision-making – it's good that we can come together as a group of referees and get the expertise that is passed onto us."
The UEFA winter course also serves as an ideal team-bonding exercise for the elite match officials, many of whom know each other from past tournaments. "We get on very well as a group," Thomson added. "It's good to come back and see each other and share stories. We don't see each other too often, because we're obviously not in the same national association. Here, it's a more relaxed and informal atmosphere than perhaps in a tournament."
The referees are all conscious that they must never stop learning and be meticulously equipped for what many see as the most difficult job in football. "There are elements in the course that can always help us improve for the coming games," Germany's Wolfgang Stark reflected as he looks forward to club competition appointments and UEFA EURO 2012. "For example, through the use of video reviews [of match situations]. And we're all motivated to keep on developing, to be as well prepared as possible."
Viktor Kassai, the Hungarian who handled the 2011 UEFA Champions League final and who is relishing the opportunity to referee at the EURO, feels that the UEFA winter gathering also gives younger arbiters an ideal chance to meet and learn from more experienced colleagues. Part of the winter course programme is set aside for newcomers to the FIFA international list – 43 of whom are in Antalya.
"There is a human part – to get the top referees together with the new referees," he said. "When I was a young referee in 2003, [UEFA's chief refereeing officer] Pierluigi Collina was an active referee – and a lot of other big referees were also involved. For me and my colleagues, it was a proud moment and a big pleasure to be with them – so now I think we also need to be open with the new, young referees and be there to help them."
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