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As the countdown continues to UEFA EURO 2012, the 12 referees who will officiate at this summer's tournament got together on a winter course organised by UEFA in Antalya, Turkey. UEFA.com caught up with "the 17th team" to find out about their preparations for Poland-Ukraine and receive an insight into what it takes to become an elite referee.
For the chosen dozen, the 20th UEFA Advanced Course for Top Referees was the perfect forum to bond and exchange ideas ahead of a major championship – and an opportunity which Howard Webb, who took charge at UEFA EURO 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, particularly values.
"We've all dedicated so much of our lives to get to this level so we all share so much in common," Webb told UEFA.com. "We all have a passion for football and for officiating, we all have families who have supported us, we all suffer the same pressures week in, week out on the field of play; but outside of the game as well, some guys have to juggle work as well as their refereeing commitments. Because of that we are like-minded people."
Perhaps because the 40-year-old Englishman, whose performances in South Africa two years ago earned him the honour of overseeing the World Cup final, does a job that can leave you feeling very lonely at times, such courses represent a welcome chance to come together "as a family". For Craig Thomson, meanwhile, the gathering on 31 January and 1 February helped the referees ensure they are united in addressing the same concerns.
"This course is very important for us in terms of consistency," said the Scot. "That's what the clubs want, what the players want, what the officials want, and that's what the spectators want – a consistent level of approach and decision-making. So it's important that we come together as a group, with the referees, and get the expertise from our coaches, Mr [Pierluigi] Collina and Mr [Hugh] Dallas."
One main area of focus heading towards the EURO is fitness, with referees running on average between 10 and 13km per match and sprinting 50 times. According to Belgian referee instructor Werner Helsen, this is a "dramatic improvement" on five or six years ago. "In terms of high-intensity running, the amount has just doubled from 2003/04 to last season; and for the very first time, for example in the English Premier League, the referees showed more high-intensity running than the players."
Former referee Wolfgang Stark says that physical fitness is key to mental clarity at crucial moments. "You can see that the matches have become faster and more physical, and that means more requirements from the referees regarding their physical condition. It's very important that a referee is fit, that he can follow the match, and that can be a decisive aspect in taking the right decisions on the pitch."
In Antalya, video examples of incidents were shown to highlight potential match scenarios, and referees now have their eyesight tested to make sure they can spot the right things in a fast-moving game. Above all, though, it is strength of mind that defines the best men in the middle.
"All the professional referees in England did a piece of research recently with a local university about the life of a professional football referee," said Webb, "and the thread that came out of all those interviews was the requirement for mental toughness, real resolve and self-belief. They are absolutely key. Without that, you won't get to the very top of the game."
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