An important career pinnacle awaits referee Minka Vekkeli when she takes charge of Friday’s European Women’s Under-17 Championship final between Spain and France in Tallinn.
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The assignment at the Lilleküla Stadium in the Estonian capital crowns an excellent tournament for the 30-year-old Finnish match official, an international referee since 2021, who is relishing this key step on a refereeing pathway that began for her at the tender age of 14.
“I’m really lucky to have been chosen as one of the referees for this tournament,” the business administration official from Jyväskylä in central Finland told UEFA.com. “And I’m extremely grateful to have been selected for the final. It’s the latest stage in a long journey.”
Teenage refereeing debut
Like many referees, Vekkeli realised at an early age that she would not be hitting the heights as a footballer. “But I wanted to see what else I could do in football instead,” she says. “I started coaching youngsters – but it was refereeing that really captured me, and I was given encouraging feedback from the beginning, so I took that road.”
The journey that lay ahead saw Vekkeli gaining early national women’s competition experience as an assistant referee before she fully took up refereeing as a 19-year-old. Additional know-how was collected in international competitions such as the Nordic Cup, and a vital stride forward followed in 2020, when she was selected to participate in UEFA’s Centre of Refereeing Excellence (CORE) programme for promising referees.
“It was a big leap for me, but I gained invaluable experience and knowledge,” she reflects. “COVID unfortunately meant that I was unable to go back for the rest of the CORE course, but I had already discovered what UEFA expected of international referees – and this was important for me in realising what I would have to do to earn the international badge.”
Teamwork recipe for success
Vekkeli has thrived in Estonia as the Under-17 tournament refereeing team has moulded into a positive and close-knit unit. “We’ve very much enjoyed being together,” she says. “It’s been a lot of fun to meet and work with referees from other countries. Everyone has helped each other – the group has been really united.”
The solid bond rapidly created between match officials from different countries will be a crucial factor in Friday’s eagerly awaited final. Vekkeli will be accompanied by assistant referees Nargis Magau (Kazakhstan) and Ana Silva (Portugal), as well as Albanian fourth official Emanuela Rusta – and all the officials are aware of why teamwork is now an essential part of refereeing at the highest levels.
“A referee can’t do the job without the team,” Vekkeli explains – I can’t do and see everything in a match, I need this high-quality assistance – we’ll be helping each other, making sure we communicate properly and sharing advice to make it possible for us to do well.”
UEFA women's referee development work
Time never stands still in refereeing, and the finals in Estonia are an important current component within UEFA’s comprehensive women’s referee development activities, in which key focus is concentrated on identifying and nurturing the top match officials – referees and assistant referees – of tomorrow.
“The women’s Under-17 referees are those who we’ve been following over the last two years, and who we believe have the potential to reach the elite category in a few years’ time – thereby emulating most of today’s elite referees who were once at this same level themselves,” says UEFA refereeing officer Dagmar Damková.
“For UEFA,” Damková.adds, “It’s very important to have this opportunity to see young, promising referees at youth tournaments, as well as at the various courses that we organise for them, because we need to prepare these referees for the future, when they will be replacing referees who retire.”
Learning from Lehtovaara
Vekkeli has had the ideal role model to help her on her adventure so far – her Finnish referee colleague Lina Lehtovaara, currently one of Europe’s leading female match officials.
Lehtovaara has regularly been close at hand to give Vekkeli the wisdom and insights gained from a career that has seen her take part in UEFA Women’s EURO 2022, officiate at last year’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final and earn a place in the refereeing team for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“I’ve watched how Lina referees, and learned and observed how she trains and prepares,” Vekkeli says. “She’s really helped me to grow along the way. She’s a shining example – she’s showed me all the time what you need to do to succeed. And if she can succeed…then I’d like to think that I can so do as well.”
Refereeing – a life experience
For Vekkeli, refereeing is proving to be a golden life experience, because it is guiding her on and off the field. “You learn how to deal with people of different characters, how to handle pressure, take decisions, act and react in different situations, know when to stay calm and when to be firm,” she explains. “It’s been important for me not only as a referee, but also in professional life.”
So how does the challenge of refereeing a major European final feel for Minka Vekkeli as Friday’s big occasion in Tallinn draws nearer? “I think the important thing will be not to over-think things, to prepare normally,” she reflects.
“It will perhaps sink in that I’m part of the final when the national anthems are playing, when there’s a moment of calm. I’ll also be looking for people I know in the stands, and making sure to remember the different protocol procedures that we must attend to – but once I blow the whistle to start the final, everything else will disappear, and I’ll be straight into the match…”