Just like the sixteen teams competing at the FIFA U-17 World Championship, the tournament's refereeing delegation has spent the last few days fine-tuning preparations for kick-off. This being the last major championship - and therefore the last chance to shine - before the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, the task awaiting these professionals is as challenging as the rewards are enticing.
Between referees and assistants, the number of match officials assembled in the Peruvian capital Lima totals 39. All are acutely aware that over and above the importance of the competition in its own right, the tournament could prove a stepping-stone to greater things. "This championship means a great many things to this group. On the one hand it's a chance to officiate at an U-17 World Championship, while on the other it's an opportunity to stake a claim for Germany." The statement, by the head of FIFA's Refereeing Department José María García-Aranda, leaves no one in any doubt as to what is at stake. Perhaps that might explain the serious expressions as the gathered officials board their bus for the Surco Air Base, where they will undergo their final fitness tests. The athletics programme awaiting them at Surco will push them to the limit, testing both speed and resistance. One of the travelling group, the Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez, confides in FIFA.com, saying, "It's normal to have a few butterflies in the stomach just before such a critical test. However, I find if you are able to channel that nervous energy, then it can actually motivate you."
The South African Jerome Damon, who raised a few eyebrows not to mention chuckles by singing throughout the physical - "It helps me keep track of my rhythm when I'm running," he says - also agrees with his colleague's analysis. "I'm surprised to have been given this opportunity. I had been aiming for a spot in my own country for the 2010 edition, but now there's the possibility of Germany. Now that would be some bonus," he says. Sitting alongside Damon is Toru Kamikawa, a Japanese official who says he is relieved his early morning nerves have left him. "We're aware that this championship is providing us with an opportunity to win a place in Germany. That said, we mustn't lose sight of how important this tournament is to the world of youth football," he added.
Probably the man who summed the situation up best on this cold and windy morning was the Colombian referee Oscar Ruiz: "Not only is the tournament a knock-out competition for the teams, it's also a de facto qualifying event for us referees. Because we work together in groups of three, we know there is no margin for error. In the same way that a side can be eliminated when the keeper slips up or the striker misses a penalty, here the referee and his two assistants all have to pack their bags if even one of them makes a mistake. It's all about teamwork."
An age old question
With the match officials set to work exclusively with the teenage stars of world football for the next two weeks, the old question about the difference between refereeing senior and youth players inevitably arises. Is it easier to handle an established player or a bourgeoning talent? Again opinion is divided. For the Australian assistant referees Nathan Gibson and Ben Wilson, "the challenge is exactly the same", a view shared by the Belgian Peter Hermans: "They are not just kids; some of them are already playing top-flight football. As a referee, you have the same responsibility, and therefore have to maintain the same level of concentration as you would in a senior World Cup."
Others see it differently and argue that it is important to remember that there will be 22 teenagers on the pitch. "It's a very nice category to referee," explains the Argentine Horacio Elizondo, speaking from experience after officiating at the Egypt 1997 edition. "The attitudes of the players are what you would expect from youngsters at their age. They can be very temperamental, and often it's no use trying to reason with them. Many play on the edge and are just waiting to erupt, which is why you have to be careful not to let the game get away from you," he says.
Oscar Ruiz echoes his colleague's sentiment, saying, "While you have to apply the same rules to every game irrespective of the players involved, you have to realise that the youngsters have more to prove and thus want to impress even more. Often that can lead to over-zealousness and work against them. In cases like that, how you control the players is vital."
Players' ages and temperaments aside, what is undeniable is that most of these referees and their assistants will be facing one of the most demanding and important tests of their careers in the upcoming weeks. For those equal to the challenge, Germany 2006 could be on the horizon.