It is not just the footballers of South Africa and Mexico who will be pinching themselves when they step out inside Soccer City Stadium today. For Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov, his selection from a strong list of candidates to officiate at the Opening Match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is the stuff of dreams also.
"I was delighted by the news, because taking charge of the tournament's Opening Match or Final are the two events that all referees dream of," said the 32-year-old. The opportunity to play a significant role in the greatest show on earth is an honour that would never have entered Irmatov's mind when he suffered the injury that ended his playing career and led him down the refereeing path.
Fourteen years on Irmatov is the only referee from Uzbekistan to have officiated in the finals of a FIFA competition. One of the highlights of his career so far was overseeing the final of the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan between Liga de Quito and Manchester United. In addition, he is the Asian Football Confederation's Referee of the Year, the third time he has received that accolade.
Ahead his career's biggest moment, Irmatov revealed he had not forgotten his first mentor in refereeing, his father. "At times like these I think of him – he was also a referee in the Soviet championship," he said. "It was he who advised me to turn to this profession at the age of 19, when a serious ankle injury forced me to give up my dreams of becoming a footballer. It all started there.
"FIFA have put their trust in me since 2003, when I joined their list of international referees. Prior to South Africa 2010, I had already taken part in FIFA's six biggest international tournaments," added Irmatov, who admitted he had learned a great deal from studying the performances of such refereeing greats as Italy's Pierluigi Collina, Argentina's Horacio Elizondo and Russia's Valentin Ivanov.
Now comes the opportunity to display his abilities in front of a watching world in Johannesburg, where FIFA World Cup hosts South Africa will take on Mexico at 4pm local time today. Irmatov said: "I'm very aware that it's a huge responsibility, but I'm 100 per cent ready and positive that once I'm out on the pitch, I'll forget everything that has gone before and treat the match just like any other."
He added that FIFA's support structure would ensure he and his fellow match officials will be perfectly prepared for the assignments that await over the coming month. "I'm confident because we're going to be working with the world's top experts in all aspects of refereeing, be they technical, physical or psychological, and that will help us to prepare for each match." Starting at Soccer City this afternoon.