The players in UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League games may be the centre of attention, but never forget that there is a third team doing their level best to produce a performance of the highest quality – the referee team, comprising the match referee, two assistant referees, a fourth official, and the additional assistant referees standing on each goal line.
This week, Europe's top referees have been offering proof of their abilities and gearing up for coming assignments in major club and national-team competitions at the UEFA winter courses in Rome. It was an impressive workout, not only for the elite referees but also for the newcomers to the FIFA international list. Another milestone arrived with a first-ever invitation to the gathering for Europe's leading women referees, some of whom will be officiating at UEFA Women's EURO 2013 in Sweden in July.
The referees strive for the highest possible quality in their work and training. They are given expert help by the UEFA Referees Committee, comprising former international referees – many of whom have taken charge of the biggest matches on the planet – and a top-notch fitness training team headed by Belgian expert Werner Helsen.
Practical sessions included a fascinating eye-opener for many match officials as they watched specialist additional assistant referee training, giving some of the referees a first taste of what it means to work with the system, which became part of the Laws of the Game last summer and is now deployed in the major European club competitions.
In addition to the on-field training programme, the referees analysed clips of European competition game situations, swapped opinions in group sessions, underwent fitness and medical checks as well as a visual test, and were also able to meet socially and exchange experiences and opinions – all of which can provide invaluable tips for future assignments.
For the women referees in particular, the opportunity to come to Rome was a historic moment. UEFA's move was welcomed unanimously by the male and female match officials, and underlined the importance that UEFA places on women's refereeing – emphasising the massive leap forward that women's football as a whole has made in recent years.
"I think it's been a fantastic experience, and definitely a positive one in that we can all come together, share experiences and learn from each other," the Republic of Ireland's Paula Brady told UEFA.com. "Women's football is growing very fast in popularity and awareness, and I think it's important that the standard of refereeing grows equally at the same rate. Courses like this provide that platform and help referees take further steps to the higher levels."
"The winter course has been a great experience," added Spain's Carlos Del Cerro Grande. "This was my first time as a FIFA referee. It allowed me to spend time with my colleagues and to learn many things about refereeing. It was an amazing experience. Meeting colleagues from other countries is interesting, because you hear other points of view which might be different from your own."
Part of the training in Rome demonstrated the work and preparation done by additional assistant referees, who are playing a crucial role in not just helping the referee make decisions on goal-line incidents, but also on penalty-area issues such as pulling or pushing at free-kicks and corners. Referees were asked to stand on the goal line and take the AARs' decisions themselves in specific situations – so experiencing what it means to have to make split-second calls under pressure.
"The system can give support to the referee in taking the right decisions," said Del Cerro Grande. "It's a good way to improve refereeing." Brady added: "I'd had experience of being an assistant referee for some time before with FIFA, but this was new – and new is good."
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