Follow an elite preparation seminar closely enough for a few days, and watching a referee in action on the pitch will never quite be the same again. Or watching football, for that matter.

Football refereeing is imperfect by its essential nature: in fractions of a second, one must make decisions where right or wrong are often separated by a few centimetres, in actions performed by some of the fittest, fastest athletes on the planet. It is an open invitation to committing mistakes. Players know it, referees know it, top refereeing instructors know it too well.

“Myself, I always enjoyed this pressure of knowing that the mistake is always there, behind the door, waiting for you,” says FIFA Head of Refereeing Massimo Busacca, who officiated in two editions of the FIFA World Cup™. “Referees need the pressure. It’s what makes us improve. However, you must prepare yourself as much as you can. Control everything there is to be controlled. Not to avoid the pressure, but to not be afraid of it, so that when you’re on the pitch it feels like you’re underwater for 90 minutes: all you see and hear is your concentration to make the appropriate decision.”

Nothing is being left to chance. All aspects which are important for the referees are mentioned during the training and are also being applied. Busacca also places great importance on the technical side of the game. Jean-Paul Brigger, head of FIFA's Technical Study Group, has become an integral part of the referee workshops.

"It is important for the referees to have an overview of how a team behaves technically and tactically," said Brigger. "It is important to show the referees how fast certain moves can be. This way, the referees can better understand situations in a match and can anticipate certain things, which are enormously important for their decisions."

When Busacca talks about preparation, he means an exhaustive repetition of concepts and actions, until they are ingrained in the instant of decision-making. The room for instinct or impression should be cut down to a minimum. For every decision made by a top referee – be it right or wrong; from calling a penalty to where to be positioned on the pitch – there should be an objective reason behind it. A reason that was discussed a million times. Was it a promising goal-scoring opportunity? Is one team’s attacking line pressing the other’s defence? Where was the exact point of contact when the player committed the foul? When the foul was committed, did the action configure a clear situation of the ball going from player A to player B? A decision by a trained elite referee should be this, a logical and yet instantaneous solution to an equation involving numerous factors. You don’t reach that without training. Lots of training.

History made in Doha
Unsurprisingly, each of these questions is just as valid for men’s football as for the women’s game. It made no sense, then, to keep the training of elite referees split apart by gender - and that was the reasoning behind FIFA’s historic decision of combining in one the preparation of prospective referees for the next cycle of World Cups: the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™.

Doha, in Qatar, last week hosted the first seminar for prospective referees on the road to Russia and France. Forty-eight selected FIFA referees from AFC, CAF and OFC spent five days watching and analysing controversial plays, taking physical tests, simulating match situations on the pitch and reviewing them on videotape. Incessantly. Men and women together. Prospective World Cup referees from CONCACAF and CONMEBOL will go through the same drill between 25 and 29 April in Miami, and the UEFA ones, in September.

“It’s a really strong message and an excellent initiative,” says Tatjana Haenni, FIFA Head of Women’s Football. “The FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada has shown how much women’s football has developed and how speed has become an important part of the game. So, obviously the referees have to follow. Men’s refereeing is so much more advanced and in such a high level, professionally speaking – also because of the history, naturally - that female officials and referees can only benefit from such a project.”

Different genders, same criteria
As it turned out in Doha, the benefits of joining forces seemed to be mutual when men and women teamed up to hone their interpretation, positioning and decision-making abilities. “I’m very happy to be doing this, because maybe the women referees have something that we, the men, don’t have. It’s a great idea to exchange experiences with them,” says Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim.

For Massimo Busacca, the initiative is also another step towards something that’s been his flagship objective since taking the helm of FIFA’s refereeing department in 2011: uniformity. “If we train, watch situations and analyse them together, men and women, we’ll give the same answers to each problem and reach the uniformity and consistency that we need in both competitions. This is very important: we don’t want to see one philosophy on the men’s side and a different one on the women’s.”

As much of a landmark as the new joint approach is, though, it has to be seen not as an end in itself, but rather as part of a step on the long road to further develop women’s football. “It’s the right path forward, but it’s not enough. Women referees need more experience. Some of them have only a handful of high-level competition matches during the year in their regions, and then suddenly they come to referee a FIFA Women’s World Cup in front of 50,000 people. They need high-level competitions; they need to be able to officiate in the highest men’s leagues in their countries,” explains Haenni.

“This is just a step – a very large step, I should say – in a very long process,” said Australian referee Kate Jacewicz following a thorough video-analysis session in which her group was led by one of FIFA’s female referee instructors. “But the most important thing is that the step has been taken. The door has been opened to allow men and women the opportunity to go wherever they want to go.” Starting, of course, with Russia and France.