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The greatest honour

Taking charge of a UEFA European Championship final may be the peak of a referee's career, but when the opening whistle blows it is business as usual for the man in the middle.

Howard Webb oversaw two finals in 2010
Howard Webb oversaw two finals in 2010 ©Getty Images

Getting to a UEFA European Championship final can be the defining moment of a player's career and it is no different for a referee.

The officials in the UEFA EURO 2012 decider – led by Pedro Proença – will also have that dizzying sensation of knowing they have reached the top of their game. Howard Webb took charge of the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup finals in 2010 and knows this well. "It was an amazing feeling to hear those words spoken – 'Match 64: Netherlands against Spain, referee: Webb, England'. It really does change the lives of you, your assistants and your families.

"Of course, you are aware of the importance of the game but you have to do the job you've been sent to do. It's still 11 against 11, played over 90 minutes, or two hours if you need extra time. Those butterflies that you have in your tummy before the game – a lot of those disappear. When you blow the first whistle, you just have to remind yourself that it's what you've done lots and lots of times before. I think the players are the same – you can't wait to get started."

Markus Merk handled Greece's 1-0 win against hosts Portugal in the UEFA EURO 2004 showpiece. "The final is the highest peak you can reach in your career," he said. "It is a very impressive moment and a great pleasure to have this honour. Everyone wants to be in the final, be it the players or the officials."

The referee can empathise with the emotions of the players during a final, helping to quell the friction that can arise from the desperation to succeed on the biggest stage. "You have to deal with 22 characters on the pitch and to lead those players," said Germany's Wolfgang Stark. "It's a very important aspect of the referee's job but something we are all prepared for at EURO. At the start, you just briefly absorb the atmosphere inside the stadium because it motivates you, but then you find the switch to focus back on the match again.”

When the game begins, wisdom overrides the adrenaline rush. Bravery and understanding are paramount, too, with difficult decisions needing to be taken in difficult situations. And not just for the man with the whistle but for his team of assistants, too. "We look at each match, because every game is slightly different, and we can always look at enhancing our teamwork," adds Webb as he talked through his team's pre-match preparations.

"We don't take anything for granted. I am a big believer that preparation is so important, and that you really can prepare yourself and your team for success. If you fail to prepare, then the old saying goes that you can prepare to fail – I really do stand by that."

When you see the match officials mount the stairs and collect their medals in Kyiv, you can be sure that it is precisely such attention to detail that put them there.