Excitement is building across the globe as qualifying for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 draws to a close, with those sides still in with a chance of making it to Asia determined to add their names to the ever-growing list of already-qualified teams.
Meanwhile, those responsible for refereeing standards at next year's showpiece event are already working hard to ensure the world's finest players will be accompanied by the very best match officials the game has to offer.
"We're working towards implementing a similar program to the one already in place for match officials in the men's game, along the same lines as they would prepare for a FIFA World Cup," Sonia Denoncourt, of FIFA's Refereeing Department, explains to FIFA.com. "The department has been reorganised with this aim in mind, and we're planning to hold several preparatory activities prior to the competition in China."
The Refereeing Department is to work with a group of nearly 100 referees and referee's assistants, of whom 39 will be chosen to travel to China next year. A number of get-togethers are to be held over the next few months aimed at improving overall standards and deciding which candidates have what it takes to officiate in the rarefied atmosphere of a FIFA Women's World Cup.
The first of these meetings will take place in the second week of January 2007 in Spain's Canary Islands, and will also be used to prepare for the prestigious Algarve Cup, to be held in Portugal at the beginning of March. This well-established tournament is the biggest event in the women's game in the build-up to China 2007 and should provide a stern test for those officials involved. An intensive programme of theory and practical classes will continue throughout the competition, with the games providing the perfect environment in which to put their newly-acquired skills into practice.
The first few of these gatherings will also enable the organisers to assess the candidates' physical condition and thus prepare personalised training plans. These plans are designed to ensure individual officials know how best to continue improving their fitness levels as the season progresses. There will also be a great deal of emphasis on theoretical and technical work, as well as striving towards a level of consistency in how officials interpret and apply the Laws of the Game.
Given the overall shortage of female referees, it would be extremely difficult to make up three-person refereeing teams of the same nationality, as is the case in the men's game. As such, any time spent together prior to the tournament is vital to establish groups of individuals able to work together effectively in pressurised match situations. These three-person working groups are also given specifically tailored instructions on how to prepare in the best-possible fashion and ultimately improve their performance out on the pitch.
In addition to physical and technical evaluations, the candidates will also undergo a series of medical tests to ascertain their overall health prior to the challenge ahead. To this end, the potential candidates will also receive detailed guidelines on how to mentally prepare for such a high-profile event and ensure they are psychologically strong enough to withstand the pressure that goes with being a top-level match official.
Heading into the home straight
The month of April is set to be a decisive period for those officials vying for a place on the plane to China, with the final announcement to be made over the course of another get-together at FIFA headquarters. Two months later, only the chosen 39 will return to Zurich for another few days of intensive preparation ahead of September's big event.
In much the same way as those national teams set to compete for the world title on Chinese soil, this select group of match officials is also due to take part in a vital pre-tournament training camp. This elite group will also meet at the end of August to ensure they go into September's FIFA Women's World Cup in optimum condition.
Not that the final of the biggest event in women's football on 30 September 2007 will put a halt to these professionals' constant pursuit of refereeing excellence. 2008 brings with it new competitions and new challenges including the FIFA Women's World Cup at U-17 and U-20 level, and the Women's Olympic Football Tournament China 2008.
The road towards continually improving the quality of referees in the women's game may be long, but from the point of view of the experts charged with moulding the future's finest officials, these women in black have the requisite ingredients to go right to the very top.