Carlos del Cerro Grande crowns his long and dedicated journey as a referee with his first European club final assignment on Wednesday.
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The 47-year-old Spanish official from Madrid reaches this personal pinnacle after 20 years of devoted duty to his job when he takes charge of the UEFA Europa Conference League final between Fiorentina and West Ham in Prague.
The accolade is the supreme achievement for the former police officer, who began refereeing as a 17-year-old and now figures among the tried and trusted veterans within UEFA’s elite contingent of referees.
Del Cerro Grande is actually no stranger to major European finals. He served as a fourth official at the 2021 UEFA Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea in Porto, as well as at the UEFA EURO 2020 final between Italy and England at Wembley.
Now he is relishing the prospect of his first final in the middle at the Czech capital’s Eden Arena. “It’s an amazing feeling – it’s definitely a dream come true,” del Cerro Grande said of his appointment. “It’s an honour and privilege to referee this match at this stage of my career, and I thank UEFA for putting its trust in me.”
“I’ve worked hard as a referee and always tried to improve constantly, because I wanted to be given important matches and perhaps a final one day.”
Del Cerro Grande began refereeing as a teenager in 1993. Like many match officials, he took the path into refereeing after setting out in football as a player. “I realised that I didn’t have the skills to be a good footballer,” he reflected. “A friend of mine was a grassroots referee, and he encouraged me to try refereeing as a different way of enjoying being involved in football, I became ‘hooked’ on refereeing very quickly.”
Patient progress to the top was to follow. Del Cerro Grande joined Spain’s top-flight refereeing team in 2010 and earned his international badge three years later.
This season, he has officiated at five UEFA Champions League matches and one UEFA Europa Conference League match, including the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg between Inter Milan and Benfica.
‘You’ve got to be self-critical’
Del Cerro Grande has adhered to various personal beliefs on his refereeing pathway. “I think a referee has to show courage and especially mental toughness,” he explained. “And you’ve got to be self-critical – you can’t improve if you can’t be honest with yourself.”
“You must be humble and keep your feet on the ground – you can feel like a king after a good match, and then the next match doesn’t go quite as well, so it’s always best to keep everything in perspective. Your next match is always a new challenge.”
Female assistant Porras Ayuso ‘a fine example’
A Spanish female assistant referee will be part of the refereeing team at the final in Prague. Guadalupe Porras Ayuso has already accompanied del Cerro Grande in major European club matches, making her UEFA Champions League debut in last September’s group encounter between Napoli and Liverpool.
“Guadalupe is a fine example to all female officials in terms of what they can achieve,” said del Cerro Grande. “I’m very pleased that she’s a member of my team.”
Porras Ayuso joins three compatriots – assistant referee colleague Pau Cebrián Debis, fourth official Jesús Gil Manzano and reserve assistant referee Diego Barbero Sevilla. The video assistant referee (VAR) role has been assigned to another Spaniard, Juan Martínez Munuera, and he will be aided by Alejandro José Hernández Hernández (Spain) and Tiago Bruno Lopes Martins (Portugal).
Del Cerro Grande and his team – “They’re so important, because they push me to do well throughout the season” – will seek to savour the occasion in Prague before getting down to their serious work from the opening whistle. “I think you have to enjoy the experience as well,” he said, “and we can do this in the warm-up as the atmosphere builds up – looking at the stadium, the crowd, taking in the moment. Then, when you walk out of the dressing-room and tunnel for the match, it’s total focus from that time onwards.”
Refereeing: ‘A university of life’
Family life and backing is crucial to del Cerro Grande when he enjoys downtime away from football. “They’ve been there for me in the good and bad moments,” the father of two sons aged 18 and five said.
The day will soon come when Carlos del Cerro Grande blows the final whistle for the last time. He describes refereeing as a “university of life – you learn to make decisions and be confident in yourself.”
When the time comes to stop, will he stay close to his ‘trade’? “I’ve gathered up so much experience during these years, and I’m always happy to give advice to younger officials,” he emphasised.
“I will give back to refereeing in the future … it’s impossible for me to imagine not being involved in some way…”