As the moment of truth gets closer and closer, the only thing rivalling the mounting excitement in sun-drenched Athens is the city's soaring temperature. With just days to go, it is not just the players that are making their final preparations, but also the tournament's referees, as the beautiful game gets ready to kick off the 2004 Olympics.

Some 63 men and women in identical outfits are gathered in the plush foyer of the Metropolitan Hotel. And if the group's bonhomie and formidable array of languages had onlookers puzzled for a moment, the giveaway is their trademark black attire. They are, of course, the tournament's referees and assistants, and their Olympic Games is about to begin 

The last refereeing delegation to arrive in the Greek capital was that of Paraguay, and despite having only arrived that morning, they joined the rest of the officials as they sat through video sessions and a rerun of the latest rule changes. "Although I'd love to referee in a World Cup one day, I believe that the Olympic Games is the greatest sporting event on earth. The presence of so many different disciplines makes it truly unique," said one of the delegation, Carlos Torres, to "I always dreamt of participating in the Games as an athlete, but it wasn't to be. Now, though, thanks to refereeing, I've finally made it. You can't imagine what it feels like to be here, in Greece, in the birthplace of the Olympics, " said the amateur rower turned referee.

Torres's fellow countryman Amelio Andino felt that despite the honourable Olympic ideals, the task awaiting tournament referees will be anything but easy. "This is a very professional sport and competing countries will be going all out to win a medal. That means our job here will be as tough as ever," he said.

The challenge of working and learning together

How, then, have all the refs been getting on? José María García Aranda, the head of FIFA's Department of Refereeing had this to say: " We're delighted with the working environment in the build up. With referees coming from so many different confederations and backgrounds, we've made a conscious effort to impress on them the importance of teamwork. To be honest though, the atmosphere has been sensational, not only in terms of their hard work and dedicated preparation, but also in terms of the spirit of companionship that they've generated."

During the instruction program, the organisers highlighted the importance of upholding the new rules that have recently come into effect. Shirt removal and excessive celebrations will be treated as cautionable offences, and more crucially, the golden and silver goal will no longer be employed. Having said that, it is not thought that implementing the changes will pose undue problems for the officials. "We've revised all the changes from a technical point of view and we've been on the playing fields to simulate and interpret their application," said García-Aranda, who also gave a special mention to the excellent work being done by the female referees. "Women's refereeing, just like the women's game, has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Both physically and technically, they're just getting better and better, and that's something were obviously very pleased about."   

And just as the competing teams all have their goals for the Games, the referees have a set of objectives too. "We'll try to make sure that the games are clean, free of violence and played in the sprit of Fair Play. That's what we're aiming for," assures García-Aranda. With a whopping eight games scheduled for this Wednesday, August 11, the men and women in black will have their work cut out.