To watch Europe's top referees preparing for the knockout rounds of this season's UEFA club competitions is a study in supportive colleagues and mutual respect – an insight into what Howard Webb describes as his "surrogate family." The oft-quoted words about teamwork, togetherness and humility were in abundance at the UEFA winter courses in Lisbon.
Whether waiting for transport to their fitness sessions in the rain and wintry winds, or discussing the sessions in the coffee breaks, the referees mixed with an aura of purpose and determination. It was a determination to improve continually; to be "human, humble and honest" in the words of UEFA Referees Committee member David Elleray. A determination to continue learning.
"Until the end of our refereeing careers, we must remain aware that we don't know everything," said Pedro Proença, who took charge of the 2012 UEFA Champions League final. "It's a time for reflection and self-assessment – good and bad. We try to prepare in the best way possible for the second half of the season."
Collectively, the referees' recollection of matches and individual moments of which they have been a part is impressive. During one photography session, a knockout round tie from the last decade of the UEFA Champions League cropped up in conversation. From the archive of the mind, the official recited two events in the game with perfect clarity and vision, always looking to learn from correct and incorrect decisions. The shared willingness to acknowledge the scope for improvement drives on the standard of refereeing in the top club competitions.
"If anyone spends time around a group of referees, they realise that we are one big team," Howard Webb, the 2010 UEFA Champions League final referee, said. "We're probably drawn together because sometimes we face criticism from certain quarters; we have to be a strong unit. We get strength from each other and we bond well because we clearly have interests. Getting together at events like this one in Lisbon is really important in sharing good practice, exchanging ideas and learning from mistakes that might have been made.
"We do that in an honest way, we do it in a way that is constructive and benefits everybody. People will hold their hands up – even the most experienced guys – and say: 'On that occasion, I got something wrong.' It's about learning and developing. I can't really put a value on how important events like this are in terms of development of officials at the highest level."
Seeing the devotion to self-betterment is, in itself, inspirational. "I would also like to say this is an important part of being a team," said Turkish official Cüneyt Çakır. "We manage important games but sometimes at international level we are part of a team, and this gives me the sense that I am part of a big refereeing family."
That family is in rude health.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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