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Heady times for Tirana final referee Kovacs

It’s been an unforgettable month for Istvan Kovacs – chosen to referee Wednesday’s inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League final, the Romanian official will also be part of the FIFA World Cup referee team later this year.

 Referee Istvan Kovacs at the Arena Kombëtare in Tirana
Referee Istvan Kovacs at the Arena Kombëtare in Tirana UEFA via Getty Images

When he was eleven years old, Istvan Kovacs watched matches at EURO ’96 in England on television, spontaneously giving correct decisions for on-field incidents at each game.

Now, 26 years later, the Romanian is enjoying a halcyon period as a top European referee, which reaches another level with his assignment at Wednesday’s encounter between Roma and Feyenoord in Tirana.

These are exciting times for the 37-year-old PE teacher from the town of Carel in north-west Romania. Two big calls have come his way recently – his appointment for the big game in the Albanian capital was followed by the news last week that he had been selected as one of the European referees for the FIFA World Cup finals in Qatar later this year. The two accolades follow on from last year’s duties at UEFA EURO 2020, when he took charge of one match and acted as fourth official at two others.

'I'm honoured by the trust that UEFA has put in me'
'I'm honoured by the trust that UEFA has put in me'UEFA via Getty Images

“I’m really happy at the moment,” Kovacs reflects on a memorable month of May. “I’m honoured by the trust that UEFA has put in me – I feel privileged to be the referee for the first-ever Europa Conference League final.”

‘Dream come true’

“It’s every referee’s dream to go to a EURO or World Cup. It’s a special feeling, yes, like a dream come true. It gives me great inspiration and motivation.”

But back to EURO ’96. The eager young TV viewer enjoyed himself pitting his wits against the match referees and, more often than not, correctly predicting their decisions. “My father, who watched matches with me, asked me, ‘How do you know these things?’ I told him, ‘I just see them!’. My Dad then announced, ‘When you’re 15, you’ll be able to attend refereeing courses – and you must go!’”

Kovacs duly attended the courses, but admits that becoming a referee was not exactly top of his list of priorities. “I played football, and I wanted to be a top player like any other football-mad youngster. I was a goalscoring central midfielder, and I eventually made it into the Romanian third division. But I realised gradually that I wouldn’t be a superstar! So, I began concentrating on my refereeing.”

Puhl’s influence

Kovacs’ biggest influence in his early career was the renowned Hungarian referee Sándor Puhl. “He was one of the best referees in the world and took charge of a World Cup final [in 1994] and UEFA Champions League final [in 1997]. It’s thanks to him that I became a referee.”

Istvan Kovacs refereed the UEFA EURO 2020 match between the Netherlands and North Macedonia in Amsterdam
Istvan Kovacs refereed the UEFA EURO 2020 match between the Netherlands and North Macedonia in AmsterdamGetty Images

By the age of 19, Kovacs was refereeing, rather than playing, in the Romanian third division. By 22, he had been promoted to the domestic top flight and, despite his tender years, was considered good enough to handle the 2007 Romanian Super Cup derby between two Bucharest clubs, Dinamo and Rapid. “It didn’t worry me that much older players would be on the pitch that day,” he remembers. “I just wanted to perform to the best of my ability and show my capabilities as a referee.”

By 2010, Kovacs had earned his international badge, and the road that lay ahead saw him eventually join the distinguished group of elite referees at the highest European level. This season, the enthusiastic tennis player and reader of books on history and psychology has already officiated at ten UEFA club competition matches, including the epic UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg between Manchester City and Real Madrid.

Team confidence

Kovacs will be assisted in Tirana by compatriots Vasile Florin Marinescu and Mihai-Ovidiu Artene. The fourth official, Sandro Schärer, is from Switzerland. The video assistant referee’s (VAR) role has been assigned to Marco Fritz (Germany), and he will be aided by countrymen Christian Dingert and Bastian Dankert.

“I’ve worked together with my two assistants for several years now, so we know each other inside out – I can tell what they’re feeling without us having to say anything,” he says. “I’m proud of our team, we have full trust in each other.”

 Istvan Kovacs (centre) with his two assistant referees for the final - Mihai-Ovidiu Artene (left) and Vasile Florin Marinescu (right)
Istvan Kovacs (centre) with his two assistant referees for the final - Mihai-Ovidiu Artene (left) and Vasile Florin Marinescu (right) UEFA via Getty Images

Kovacs insists that he and his team will treat Wednesday’s big game at Tirana's Arena Kombëtare as a normal match. “I think it’s important that we don’t put any additional pressure on ourselves because it's a final,” he explains. “We’ll prepare like we always do, and we have total confidence in each other’s ability.”

Feet on the ground

What does a top referee need to stay at the top? “Courage, ambition, consistency,” Kovacs explains. “I feel it’s also important to keep your feet on the ground. Work hard and prepare to the fullest.” Mental strength is crucial: “You have to be strong, because it’s not always easy being a referee – I’m someone who is really motivated by the atmosphere of a big match and being out there in the middle.”

Life as a top referee can’t get much better than it is for Istvan Kovacs at present. With important duties in sight, both now and in the not-too-distant future, he remains humble and determined to make further progress.

“I’d like to thank everyone who has helped to bring me so far, and especially the Romanian Football Federation and its referees committee headed by [former international referee] Kyros Vassaras, who have given me excellent and comprehensive long-term support.” he explains. “I’m also grateful to UEFA for the expert help and guidance that I’ve received.”

“I want to develop my skills, and maintain and even improve my standards – I feel that I still have a lot to learn.”