Moulding the future's officials
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The old saying goes that “leaders are born, not made”, but when it comes to referees and officials that couldn’t be further from the truth.

To the untrained eye, the world of football refereeing may seem a lot less technical and in-depth than the huge industry it looks to keep in check once all have crossed the white line, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. At Azerbaijan 2012 the rigorous methods employed to produce the best officials in the world are being used prepare the next generation of whistle and flag-carrying women.

While the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup may be the first tournament for many of the players taking part, the same can also be said for some of the match officials, with many embarking on their first FIFA competition. Once here, they are exposed to weeks of intensive training, match experience and performance analysis that will hopefully lay the foundations that could see them at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015.

Coordinated by 2000 Olympic gold medal match referee Sonia Denoncourt, women from every confederation are developing their skills and building bonds on the field and in class. Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar told “It’s a new environment for us to get used to be, but it’s challenging and exciting.

“It’s good that we are together in both training and the classroom as we are from a lot of different countries and we have to work together on the field, so it makes it easier when we officiate on the games.”

“I think we learn something new in every training session,” Dutch assistant referee Nicolet Bakker added.

You need all the physical preparation, you need the technical preparation but you also need the mental preparation as well.
Mike Riley, referee assessor at Azerbaijan 2012

The hope is that the techniques acquired here will be taken and applied to their daily and weekly routines back home, so their progression can build continually beyond the rigorous tournament programme. Former Premier League referee Mike Riley, who is a referee assessor and part of the hard-working performance analysis team at Azerbaijan 2012, believes the experience they are getting here is perfect preparation for taking part in future tournaments.

“They get four weeks experience of officiating in a tournament, that’s structured just like any other FIFA event, plus they get the experience of seeing lots of other teams from different confederations they wouldn’t normally see,” explained Riley. “Add to that the four weeks of intensive training with Sonia and her coaching and development team, making it a very positive experience for them.”

While there are the obvious physical and technical training for the 40-plus officials to undergo, they also get exposed to plenty of psychological preparation methods to give the grounding for handling the intensity of such a high-pressure role. “You need all the physical preparation, you need the technical preparation but you also need the mental preparation as well,” Riley said. “The more you prepare mentally the better performances you put in.”

Dealing with that side of things is sports psychologist Esther Muller, who believes that good mental training leads towards the officials working with body and mind in sync. “The brain always has to be connected with the body and it’s very important for me to see them progressing,” she said as she watched the women put through their paces.

Providing them with methods to deal with issues before, during and after a match, Muller spoke of the satisfaction she gets from working with the women over a long period of time, as they aim towards Canada 2015 and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The sky’s the limit, it’s just about commitment, working hard and then in the end hopefully it will pay off.
Cardella Samuels, referee

“Through four or five years you see them grow, you see them make better decisions, you see their body language is better, that they cope with mental stress and pressure better, it’s good.”

The range of individuals that combine at these sessions is another point that Muller finds satisfying. “It’s nice with all the countries represented and the different thinking and different attitudes, it’s really interesting. It’s not always easy to get people from all these different backgrounds thinking along the same lines, but Sonia does the job very well.”

These backgrounds not only vary from where they come from, but also why they got into refereeing and what else they do. Cardella Samuels, a referee from Jamaica, got into referee through a friend: “They encouraged me to pick up the challenge and I haven’t regretted it one bit.”

Bakker and Kulcsar both took to officiating having come from football families, but the later studied economics and works as a business consultant, while Bakker works with kids. “I work in a social home for children with behavioural problems, sometimes you can compare the skills needed a bit for dealing with football players.”

Individualism aside, the skills they acquire will hopefully give all those here the tools to move onwards and upwards in the profession. Samuel has her eyes on doing just that. “The sky’s the limit, it’s just about commitment, working hard and then in the end hopefully it will pay off.”

Kulcsar finished on a note that will hopefully drive each and every one of those present to keep improving themselves and return to future tournaments. “We love refereeing and we love football but the higher you go the better the feeling. It’s still great to referee a game at home, but officiating an international game is even better.”