The 27 FIFA Confederations Cup referees and assistants have been training together in France since last Sunday. For the first time in an official FIFA competition these custodians of the beautiful game will be testing earpieces as a means of communicating with one another in the heat of the action. Results in training give cause for optimism.

On the bus taking them to INSEP (French National Sports and Physical Education centre) in the Paris suburbs, the atmosphere among the FIFA officials seems very relaxed. Carlos Amarilla is brandishing a flag bearing the words: “Viva Paraguay!” Aussies Mark Shield and Jim Ouliaris find this hilarious. The mood changes when they arrive at their destination though; all are suddenly very focused as training begins. Werner Helsen, the man responsible for preparing the refs explains: “Everything is becoming more and more professional. In terms of fitness we have never been in better shape.”

The earpieces were tested for the first time this Monday. “The principle is simple: the three officials all wear earpieces and strap a transmitter around their waist. The ref can talk to his assistants whenever he wishes, while the assistants have to press a button to speak with him,” explains Nic Beattie, who designed the experimental system that will be used during the competition. And first impressions would appear to be positive. “It’s very comfortable, which surprised us,” says Mark Shield. “It’s reliable, even if there is a little background noise when the referee on the pitch is running,” adds assistant referee Adjovi Hugues from Benin.

Everyone is eager to try out the system in official match conditions. Twenty minutes in training is not enough. “Let’s see how it works during a real game. The sound is good, the earpiece is comfortable, but over 90 minutes other problems could arise,” says Russian Valentin Ivanov. “It’s a new system and can only be assessed over time,” agrees Iranian Masoud Moradi.

New habits
The officials are all hopeful the new technology will bear fruit. “Obviously it will be a positive thing if communication is improved between the refereeing trio. We’ll get the message more quickly and be able to carry out substitutions more efficiently, for example. But that’s just one of many advantages,” says Mark Shield. His assistant Jim Ouliaris agrees: “I can tailor my movements to adapt to what I can hear happening on the field.”

A few hiccups will need to be overcome, nonetheless, if the system is to function effectively. “It’ll have to be a little quieter – more discreet,” is Jim Ouliaris’ opinion. “It’s not heavy but it’s a little constrictive,” adds Masoud Moradi. Another issue is the fact that the refereeing assistant must press a button on his belt to be able to speak with the referee on the pitch, like when using a walkie-talkie.

This is a habit that needs to be worked on if it is to become a reflex. “It isn’t easy to remember to press a button with one hand when you have a flag in the other. But I guess we’ll all get use to it,” says Jim Ouliaris. Such remarks are being noted down by the designers of the device and by members of the FIFA Referees Committee. Because when it comes to refereeing the watchword is quite definitely communication.