For the teams at the UEFA Regions' Cup, playing at the amateur finals may be the pinnacle of their careers; for the match officials here in Dublin, this may just be the start.
UEFA's development tournaments provide a superb opportunity for young officials – all successful in their national leagues, and with experience of UEFA competition games – to take the next step up in their careers. The 16-strong squad that arrived in Dublin has now been whittled down to four for Saturday's final: referee Nikolaj Hänni from Switzerland, his assistants – Belgium's Rien Vanzyre and Montenegro's Danijel Dević – and Belarusian fourth official Denis Scherbakov.
"It's not about me – we are a team of four," insisted the 39-year-old Hänni as he looked ahead to the game, though he was appointed as official team spokesman as he talked through his career with UEFA.com.
Like the players at the tournament, Hänni combines his footballing work with his day job, in a factory building prefabricated houses. "I work 80% of the time in the factory and 20% of the time as a referee," he explained. "I have a very understanding boss."
The seeds of Hänni's refereeing future were planted with a great experience as a player. "When I was 12 or 13 I was a defender, and for one game we had a very young referee, and he was very, very good, and it put the thought of refereeing into my mind. Then, when I was 17, the president of my club came to training and said: 'We are looking for referees?' And I thought: 'Why not?'"
Referees who have officiated at the UEFA Regions' Cup have gone on to work at the very highest levels, but Hänni has not set himself any long-term targets. "I always look step by step," he said. "I had a very bad accident in 1994 and I broke both my legs, and that changed the way I see every game. I enjoy football and don't worry about what might happen next year?"
Refereeing has changed the way Hänni looks at football, meanwhile, making watching a match for fun almost impossible. "I can do it for about five minutes," he said. "And from then on I am looking at the referee – 'that's good', 'that's bad' - every referee is like that." The same goes for Victor Mintoff, one of the experienced former officials who have been overseeing the new generation's work at the finals, helping them to learn from each others' work.
"We have been talking about refereeing all the time – at lunch, at dinner," said the Maltese official. "There are some things you can learn about with your national association back at home, but there are also situations that referees only see once in a lifetime. I was a referee for about 25 years and have been an assessor for about 15 more. You pass on your experience."
Hänni will hopefully be benefiting from that experience as he oversees Saturday's final between Eastern Region IRL and Zagreb. His message to the finalists: "The most important thing is respect – respect the rules, respect the players, respect the referee team." Not a complicated formula, but one that should ensure a great game.
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