As they take their first steps on the ladder, the nurturing of the referees and assistants at the U17 finals in Slovakia is as crucial for the future of European football as that of the players.
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With the focus on the eight national sides at the 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, many people have missed the presence of a ninth team at the tournament in Slovakia. Though the team of referees and assistants will not be lifting a trophy come 17 May, their development on this stage is just as important for the future of European football as that of the players.
Kyros Vassaras is a member of the UEFA Referees Committee and is at the tournament to monitor and advise the young referees, who are all taking part in their first final round.
"The referees can be compared to the young players in the teams," said Vassaras. "They have shown lots of potential. They are young and have been selected because of their performances so far. This is their first final tournament, so it is very important in their career development."
This is no holiday for the group of officials, who are always striving to ensure the highest of physical standards. "We act like a real football team. We have training every day, we do practical exercises on the field, and all the referees are monitored by a fitness coach and his assistants," said Vassaras.
And just like a football team, the referees work just as hard off the pitch as they do on it, analysing matches and past performances, while being given advice by two committee members, Jozef Marko and Nikolay Levnikov, who are acting as UEFA observers alongside the experienced observer Jan Fasung. "After the match, we analyse the situations which arose with the referee, then we have a group DVD match analysis, so everybody can learn from the other matches. We find this improves the performance."
There is a clear message being communicated to the teams, and Vassaras emphasises the three core values which guide new referees. "The priority is to protect the safety of the players – from violent conduct, from serious foul play – and the second task is to protect the image of football. Things like simulation, confrontations and unsporting behaviour do not give the correct image. And the third is to protect the image of refereeing. We let the players know there will be zero tolerance to dissent, or anything that could undermine the authority of the referee."
For the referees in Slovakia, this is just the first step on the way to taking charge of the biggest games on the planet, and they will be treading a well-worn path as they make their way to the top. "All the top referees started at tournaments like this," said Vassaras. "Everyone on the UEFA list. If they continue to work hard and improve, they will go from here and maybe next it will be U19 and U21 events, then eventually the EURO and the highest UEFA competitions such as the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Champions League."