English referee Marc Birkett explains how, with UEFA's backing, he has gone from refereeing in an amateur domestic futsal league to handling the biggest games in the sport.
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In February, English referee Marc Birkett officiated at the UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 final in Antwerp, less than 18 months on from a similar honour at the FIFA Futsal World Cup in Bangkok – not bad coming from a country with no professional league.
While most referees at the European finals hailed from established nations like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Russia, Birkett was also joined by Gerald Bauernfeind from Austria, who have never played a competitive futsal fixture. But then, just as more countries are coming into the futsal fold on the pitch, UEFA is making sure that referees from across Europe get their chance at the top level too.
Birkett, who will also referee at the UEFA Futsal Cup finals in Baku next month, made his major tournament debut at UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 in Croatia, and told UEFA.com: "Going into the EURO in Croatia for me, at the level that we operate in English futsal, was quite a big step up. But I had quite a good grounding, a few years with a FIFA badge and within UEFA, to be confident of delivering the games.
"To be selected to go to the World Cup the same year was unbelievable for me, a dream come true. To do some of the games with the different countries and the different styles of futsal was hugely rewarding, and then refereeing the final was a huge honour."
Still, he added: "The step-up is huge. To put it in an English football context, it's probably [going] from refereeing on parks and local football to refereeing in the Premier League. It's those kind of extremes. It's something you get used to over time with experience of international competition.
"When you are in a group surrounded by Italian, Spanish and Portuguese referees, who have refereed at the top level, bouncing off them and being accepted into that group [makes it] a little bit easier now to step up. The emotions are different, the standard of play is different but the experience says you can deal with that."
Pedro Galán Nieto, once a leading international referee from Spain and now a UEFA instructor, confirms that giving officials like Birkett such an opportunity is a priority – and a challenge. "This is the most difficult thing from our side. Some of these referees don't have a strong or even a professional league in their own countries.
"It is difficult for them to come to a big tournament like this and deal with not only the technical part on the pitch but also the atmosphere and the responsibility of refereeing. So we create courses and give them educational material to give them support technically, psychologically and mentally."
Birkett, a football referee at semi-professional level until deciding to concentrate on futsal, added: "It is really positive that UEFA encourages developing nations to take part, and to have that equal opportunity, so it is not just a closed shop in terms of the more established futsal nations.
"I also think it is credit to the English refereeing system. It is quite comprehensive and challenging to go through the English pathway; that tailors yourself to be a better match official all round, so when you take the step up your refereeing skillset is there."