At any UEFA competition match, a man or woman will be sat in the stands paying devout attention to the refereeing team. These are UEFA's referee observers – and their role is crucial in helping the European governing body pinpoint the top referees of the future and in helping to coach match officials from game to game.
UEFA deploys 214 referee observers proposed by their national association, including 30 female observers. In principle, they are former international referees themselves, observing and assessing referees' performances, and accompanying them and debriefing them at all competition matches. "We use their experience," says UEFA refereeing officer Hugh Dallas. "Former international referees have so much knowledge that it's imperative that this experience is passed down the line."
From youth tournaments to EURO final rounds, the referee observers provide in their reports information on match officials that is essential for the UEFA Referees Committee to carry out its duties – particularly in terms of promoting and assigning referees into various groups.
The marking system is based on categorising the referee as "excellent", "very good", "good" and so on, and the observer also writes down comments related to performance. "UEFA's Referees Committee has decided on the 2014 promotions and recategorisation, and every referee on the UEFA list in the various categories – male and female – has been discussed in fine detail," says Dallas. "We need to have enough knowledge of that referee's previous performances – his matches, the level of match he's refereed at, the level of competition, the performances, fitness levels, etc.."
Accuracy and consistency are vital in a report. "We need to make sure the mark is accurate, that the mark reflects the comments," Dallas notes.
As referees progress up the scale, they are appointed to different competitions where there will be a specific observer sent to watch them. And as they step up the grades, they are monitored as to how they handle the various situations.
When a referee is en route to the top level, a referee observer takes on a special coaching role. "The referee observer will arrive at the venue the day before the game," explains Dallas. "He will begin to assess the referee, attending the organisational meeting on the morning of the match. He's with the [refereeing team] all the time and he can attend the referees' pre-match meeting before they leave for the stadium. His job then at the stadium is to assess the performance of the match officials. At the end of the match he will be given a DVD of the game. He will have taken some notes of various incidents, and those notes and incidents will be prepared for the referee team. A full post-match debrief then takes place with all the match officials.
"The referee observer then submits a detailed report to UEFA within 48 hours, and the mark will include all the various aspects of the match, including points for improvement and positive areas. That report is approved, by UEFA's Referees Committee, and is then made available to the referee and the national association of that referee."
Within the marking system, various guidelines are given – e.g. where referee observers should deduct a mark for a negative issue in a match, such as a missed card or a card given unnecessarily or a major error. "But overall," adds Dallas, "referees do not lose out on being considered for promotion based on a performance that has fallen below UEFA's expected level."
The observers must know if a referee can take criticism, and understand when to handle a referee with sensitivity. "You have to start to prepare a referee for his next game from the minute he comes off the pitch," Dallas says. "If he's had a difficult match, the observers know what the referee is going through because they have been there. Some referees may go into defensive mode [in the debrief]; others accept, want to learn and move on. Only a former referee can really handle a referee in this situation."
To enable them to do the job efficiently, UEFA holds regular referee observer courses, where the observers, among other things, watch a UEFA Champions League match, compile a full report on it and are put in a simulated situation of a post-match debrief – with Referees Committee members acting as the referees. "It's an ongoing educational programme," says Dallas, "where we update the observers on changes and amendments to the Laws of the Game, and on any new guidelines that UEFA's Referees Committee has given the referees and assistant referees.
"We have to make sure we keep the observers updated, so we have six referee observer courses throughout the two-year cycle, and every referee observer, male and female, is invited along to one of the six courses."
The courses also provide for invaluable knowledge-sharing. "By bringing them together," Dallas says, "you're actually learning from experience about what's going on in each other's national associations, so the observers hear good ideas and introduce them in their own country. The networking aspect is very positive. It's important to continue to meet like this, because it is refereeing that benefits."
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