As he prepared to referee tonight's UEFA Europa League final in Hamburg, Nicola Rizzoli told UEFA.com: "I know the teams. I know how they play. Now is the moment to relax."
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Referee Nicola Rizzoli is determined to enjoy what will be a proud moment both in his officiating career and for the Italian refereeing community when he takes charge of tonight's UEFA Europa League final.
The 38-year-old will undertake his most high-profile assignment yet by overseeing the inaugural final of the newly branded competition, between Club Atlético de Madrid and Fulham FC. Speaking to UEFA.com from the stands at the Hamburg Arena, Rizzoli, whose appointment was officially confirmed on Monday, said: "It is a great honour, for me especially and then for my family and the people around me. It is also an honour for all Italian referees, who, I think, are proud of me. I am proud to be here for the final."
As he prepares to scale this pinnacle of his sporting profession, Rizzoli will "relax this afternoon" in anticipation of the 20.45CET kick-off. "I have prepared for the match," he said. "I've seen all the videos of the teams. I know the teams. I know how they play. Now is the moment to relax."
Come the evening, though, Rizzoli – an architect from Mirandola in Emilia-Romagna – will be ready to lead the third team of this final. In addition to the finalist clubs from Spain and England, the refereeing unit, as for every UEFA Europa League game this season, comprises the referee, assistant referees Cristiano Copelli and Luca Maggiani, additional assistant referees Paolo Taglievanto and Andrea De Marco, and fourth official Gianluca Rocchi.
"We are a great team, a big team – seven people if you include the reserve official – so the most important thing is to find the best way of managing my team," said Rizzoli. "We have a communications system so I can be in contact with them. I will speak to every one of them. It is very important to be friends, to trust each other, and to be very clear about our approach. That way, the rules we have are very clear and everyone knows what they have to do."
Rizzoli knows the additional assistant referee system from having handled the round of 16 match between Liverpool FCand LOSC Lille Métropole. A veteran of 28 UEFA fixtures in total, he has the recent experience of refereeing eight 2009/10 UEFA Champions League games, notably the Manchester United FC's quarter-final second leg against FC Bayern München.
Now for the final of a prestigious UEFA club competition. "The most important thing is to find the way to enjoy the moment," Rizzoli insisted. "And to think about my mother, my father, my family, the people who helped me arrive at this moment. It is important to remember the journey you have taken in reaching your appointment."
Ever mindful that "the most important people on the pitch are the players", he will nonetheless be keen to set a standard during the early exchanges between Atlético and Fulham. "In every match your first decision, and the first minute, is very important in establishing the line you will referee at – everyone has to understand you are the leader on the pitch," he explained. "The players have to understand how the referee will take charge of the game."
Rizzoli should certainly be operating at peak performance levels, fresh from officiating at the Coppa Italia final between FC Internazionale Milano and AS Roma. "Last week I did the Italian Cup final and it was a very difficult match to referee," he said. "I do think that in Italy we can get a lot of experience of difficult matches. I have taken charge of many big matches involving Inter, Milan, Juventus, Roma, Lazio – all the derbies – and I think I can compare those matches in some ways with tonight's."
As with the player's mantra, though, so with referees: the next game is the most important one. "I always take one step at a time and I want to enjoy this game and do my best. I will think about next season later – at the moment I am thinking only about this match."