Walter Sieber, the human stopwatch
"When it's time, it's time." Walter Sieber, the most experienced of FIFA general coordinators, shoulders the responsibility for the world's greatest football matches. Sieber is accustomed to being boss of the stadium, and in Athens he has returned to the Olympic flame where it all began for him in Montreal back in 1976. As we focus on the work of a man blessed with an uncommon eye for detail and a seemingly inbuilt stopwatch, it becomes apparent that if organisation was an Olympic event, Walter Sieber would top the rostrum every time.
Picture a sun-drenched afternoon in June 2003. The deserted stands of Paris's Stade de France belie the activity below. Surrounded by volunteers, Walter Sieber is coordinating the rehearsal of the teams' entry onto the pitch for the semi-final of the FIFA Confederations Cup France 2003. At his signal, schoolchildren emerge from the tunnel and take up their designated places on the pitch.
One boy holding the Turkish flag gives a rendition of la Marseillaise that is a trifle over-boisterous for the purposes of this timed rehearsal, allowing his corner of the flag to droop in the process. Walter Sieber has a word in his ear.
- Listen, son: you're proud to be French and that's great, but just for tonight you mustn't sing. And you need to make sure you keep the flag nice and taut. Also, it should be your right knee on the ground, not your left.
|Walter Sieber gives a lesson before a match.|
With his average height and slender build, Sieber's quiet authority transcends the limitations of physical stature, and owes more to his scientific approach to organisation and mechanics. His head topped by short grey hair juts slightly forward, as if focused stubbornly on one immutable target: the perfect staging of the football match over which he is presiding, right down to the very last minute.
This Canadian of Swiss extraction is something of a unique link between the football and Olympic worlds. Walter Sieber's introduction to the organisation of top international competitions and their responsibilities came at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, where he was the General Sporting Director. "When I accepted that job," he says, bringing his narrow-framed spectacles to his lips, "I said to myself: 'In theory, there will only be 25 jobs like this each century, and that's assuming none are cancelled due to war and so on.'"
But now Sieber finds himself on a second Olympic adventure. The quality of the organisation of the Montreal Games caught the eye of the Brazilian, João Havelange, then FIFA President, leading his General Secretary, Sepp Blatter to place Sieber in charge of the Monterrey venue at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. That competition marked the creation of the post of General Coordinator, who is responsible for the day-to-day operational supervision of the venues. It also saw Sieber embark on the football path, and he would be in Naples for the Italy-Argentina semi-final in 1990 and in China the following year for the first-ever FIFA Women's World Cup. Now firmly established as the ultimate safe pair of hands in which to place the most important football matches, he oversaw the last two FIFA World Cup Finals at Paris in 1998 and at Yokohama in 2002.
|Walter Sieber prepares to enter the field of play with the teams before a match at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2003.|
On matchday, Walter Sieber is every inch the hands-on boss, bestowing his own distinctive signature upon the order of events. "It's necessary to be strict in the execution of the pre-match protocol, because it has to be the same everywhere. Timing is everything. The children arrive five hours before the match and for one reason or another they are always hungry or thirsty, so you don't usually see them for the first half-hour. Then, we can get down to work. As the children are different for every match, we have to start from scratch each time."
After three run-throughs, Sieber is satisfied and gives everyone a break before the dress rehearsal. He uses this time to climb to the top of the stadium, asking for the anthems of the two teams and of FIFA to be played over the public address system.
He inspects every line on the pitch, before checking that the nets are in good condition and fixed securely to the posts and the metal hoops embedded in the ground. The playing surface is impeccable. "Its quality is my prime concern. It should be like a carpet. I remember at Melbourne, with ten days to go before the match, it was completely scorched."
At this stage of the countdown, the tour of the pitch is merely a formality. "The match is already 90% ready in my mind, as all the important issues have been dealt with at the coordination meeting the day before the game. That meeting is a major part of the preparation process because it's the time when the teams are shown the procedure for the game, right down to the smallest detail. Everyone who plays a role in the match attends this meeting: the representatives of both teams, the fourth official, the referees' inspector, the FIFA doctor, FIFA's media officer, the competition director, the transport director and the security director, who has a vital role to play."
It is at this time that Sieber issues the team representatives with copies of the official countdown that enables them to organise their time around the match: the exact time to leave the hotel, when to warm up, etc. "I leave the detailed countdown sheet with them because it is essential to start on time, and without their cooperation, that is not possible. Most teams put it up in the changing rooms."
The final countdown begins to unfold one-and-a half hours before kick-off, when the teams arrive at the stadium. "The first instinct of the players is to leave their kit in the changing rooms and go out onto the pitch to look around and get a foretaste of the atmosphere. After 5 or 10 minutes, they return to the changing rooms." Walter Sieber then ensures the teams' technical staff hand in their team sheets, for it is his responsibility to pass on the list of the 22 players who will start the game.
|Walter Sieber checks the netting.|
T-50 minutes - start of the warm-up
T-22 - end of the warm-up: "The players have 25 minutes, except the goalkeepers, who get 5 minutes extra."
T-11 - The players leave the changing rooms: "Some teams can be hard work to get out of the changing rooms. I've known them be praying, for example, and even if you knock on the door, they insist on finishing their prayer. It's of crucial importance that I leave the teams to prepare in peace, but when it's time, it's time."
T-9 - The teams gather in the tunnel: "We are beneath the clock, ready to go out onto the pitch. There are children holding the players' hands and others carrying the flags. Everyone knows their role."
T-7 - Entry of the "FIFA Fair Play" flag, followed by the teams: Sieber walks out in the middle of this procession and sees the two groups line up in front of the official stand.
T-6 - Start of the first national anthem
T-4 - End of the second national anthem, the teams shake hands
T-3 - The children leave the field, the players pose for the photo
T-2 - Handshakes between the captains and match officials, exchange of pennants - Toss
T - Start of match
"Once the game starts, I take up my place on the bench with the fourth official, the FIFA media officer and the competition director from the organising committee. If the substitutes warm up in the wrong place or if a team has too large a delegation in its dugout, I ask the fourth official to intervene. But in theory at least, my work is finished."
After the game, while the supporters blow their horns or go out on the town, Walter Sieber makes sure that all the match reports are sent by fax to FIFA headquarters as soon as possible. Once this final task has been performed, he heads down to the car park where his driver awaits. On match nights, Sieber forgoes dinner and is in bed by 12.30am.