Fit in body, mind and sight – three indispensable elements that carry today's top European referees to the summit. All of these aspects have featured at the UEFA winter referees' gathering in Turkey this week. Nowadays, it is not only about making the right decisions – match officials must be 100% on their mettle in so many other ways. Let's take just three.
Firstly, watch a major match and its relentless pace and power, and you understand why the officiators have to be in maximum physical condition to cope with their role. Belgian fitness expert Werner Helsen trains referees for UEFA. In Turkey, his team have been screening the referees, measuring weights and calculating fat percentages, and organising a fitness check to ensure the officials are ready for their spring assignments in the European club competitions.
"It is indeed the case that the modern-day referee has to be an athlete, as do the players," Helsen told UEFA.com. "There are many more athletes on the field than there were some years ago. It is easy to see that physically, as well as [from] what is actually done in a match.
If I compare today's football in terms of refereeing performances even from five or six years ago, it has changed dramatically. An example is in high-intensity running – where the amount has doubled between 2003/04 and last season. Believe me, for the very first time, for example in the English Premier League, the referees produced more high-intensity running than the players.
"A referee will run between 10 and 13km [during a game]," Helsen added, "but the biggest difference or the biggest progress has been in the amount of high-intensity running and also in the number of sprints, which have also doubled since 2003, and right now a referee shows approximately 50 sprints in a match which is equal to what players show."
UEFA refereeing officer Hugh Dallas reflects on how much has changed since the 1970s. "There's the quote about people watching a rerun of the 1970 FIFA World Cup final and thinking there is a problem with the television, because the game seems to be in slow motion," he said. "Now in the 21st century, you see how fast the game is played – and we have to prepare referees the way that clubs and countries prepare the players.
"Referees can be double the age of a player – but they have to be as fit," continued Dallas, who was in charge of the 1999 UEFA Cup final and was fourth official for the 2002 World Cup final. He embraced the opportunity to flourish fitness-wise in the latter stages of his own career.
"I think I was one of the first referees to become involved in the new professional approach by UEFA," Dallas explained. "In the twilight of my refereeing career, I was probably fitter than I was at the beginning. This was down to the approach we were encouraged to take. We were now being remotely analysed by physical experts – there was no hiding place."
On to the second element. At the course in Antalya, the referees have also undertaken visual tests. They need to be able to fix their vision on incidents, focus on close or moving objects, and react to movement around them. "We test our referees on their expertise in making decisions, and on the physical and psychological aspects," Dallas said, "but we never ever realised just how sharp their eyesight has to be during matches.
"Colour-blindness can sometimes be a problem, so we now really leave no stone unturned. We employ specialists to look into the referees' background regarding eyesight. And thankfully we've had no real surprises up to now."
Finally, the third element – top officiators equally require great mental strength to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Englishman Howard Webb faces tough challenges every week in his country's Premier League – under the close microscope of the players, coaches, press, TV and public.
"The English referees did a piece of university research recently about the life of a professional referee," Webb said. "The main thing that came out was the requirement for mental toughness, and real resolve and self-belief.
"They are absolutely key," added the 2010 World Cup and UEFA Champions League final referee. "Without that, you probably won't get to the very top of the game. Part and parcel of the game is understanding that people won't always agree with what you do on the field.
The game gets ever quicker and more demanding, and there are pressures. I've learned over a period of time that you have to keep this self-belief."
Physically fit, healthy in vision and strong in character. A trio of crucial personal components that help give Europe's men with the whistle their distinguished reputation throughout the football world.
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