Interview: Fit for purpose? Post Euro interview with UEFA referee guru

By Samindra Kunti

July 13 – English referee Mark Clattenburg led the Euro 2016 final as the tournament climaxed with a prolonged encounter between hosts France and Portugal. Clattenburg was omnipresent with 2,774 meters of high speed running (14 to 20 km/h) and 999 meters of very high speed running (> 20 km/h) during the match. In the 109th minute Antonio Eder scored the winning goal with a fine strike from outside the box. 

Early on in the game the English referee had failed to spot a rash challenge from Dimitri Payet on Cristiano Ronaldo. Minutes later, the Portuguese superstar had to limp off, but, after a tournament that was relatively free from playing incidents, UEFA’s referee fitness expert Werner Helsen, a professor at the KU Leuven’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Sciences, has expressed his profound satisfaction with the standard of refereeing at Euro 2016 in an exclusive interview with Inside World Football.

What’s your overall assessment of Euro 2016 from a refereeing point of view?

You can sense it’s been a very good tournament, reflected by the comments and evaluations of the UEFA referee officers Pierluigi Collina, Hugh Dallas and Mark Batta, who are the technical experts.

Not at a single moment during the tournament did any controversy about refereeing decisions arise. That’s indeed a very good sign. There were no mistakes that influenced the final outcome of a match. And this was also expressed by the coaches of the teams and the match analyses on different media platforms.

Why has this major tournament been so successful in your opinion?

First and foremost, that is down to the referees. The 18 (referee) teams, that were in France, are among Europe’s elite. They were accompanied by their assistants and additional assistant referees, with whom they form a quintet domestically, in the Europa League and in the Champions League.

That’s important, as their performances are evaluated by referee observers in every match and monitored by the Refereeing Officers to maintain the highest quality of refereeing. In addition, at this championship for the first time, the Chief Refereeing Officer, Pierluigi Collina, also introduced a match analyst, Cristiano Ciardelli, who analysed the playing style of the teams and provided the referees with valuable information, including the setup for free kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins, etc.

As far as my role is concerned as a sports scientist and a UEFA training expert, the preparation for Euro 2016 started right after the end of Euro 2012 and that was a very progressive approach from UEFA. The last four years, I have followed 30 referees closely with a web-based platform ‘Topsportlab,’ to which the referees submit their training routines and where we add their results of fitness tests and injury prevention screenings. That has enabled a change from a product-oriented to a persona-oriented approach with the aim of improving everyone individually. The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery is a commonplace performance test within professional football circles – 65% of all the referees have improved substantially, in spite of aging four years.

Since Pierluigi Collina became chief refereeing officer, it’s become important that referees are not only fit, but also perceived as such, ‘the physical appearance image.’ In the last four years, the fat percentage has dropped from 17% to 13.5%, in spite, again, of being four years older.

We conduct screenings during the winter and summer camps – strength, flexibility, mobility, core stability etc – and that allowed us to produce individual injury prevention exercises. The referees have become stronger and less prone to injuries. In the last five weeks, we didn’t encounter a major problem during any training session or match notwithstanding the fact that the training intensity was quite high during several sessions.

How did you manage to individualise the training regimes for 94 officials?

This was a far larger group than at previous European Championships. But we strived to maintain the individualisation for every team and every individual. We gave every team a specific training diary from MD-3 until MD+2 with particular exercises and training objectives.

Every morning, every individual also completed an iPad questionnaire: did you sleep well? How do you feel? Are you suffering from abnormal muscular stiffness? How is your mood? So I got that information before practice started. At the start of the tournament some referees didn’t sleep very well – a new room, a new mattress, etc. We took that into account. That was part of the success – attending everyone’s precise needs at the right time.

What do you do when a referee sleeps badly?

You can deal with it if it’s one night. That’s not a disaster, but when it’s recurring the person in question will receive a lighter training diary. I received a text message from Nicola Rizzoli, who thanked me, writing ‘I have never trained this intensely for an entire month before, but I didn’t have any problems.’

On the one hand, they train very intensely – which is required to attain top fitness for the games – but on the other hand they didn’t suffer any negative side effects. Rizzoli is one of the more experienced (older) referees and one of the few who is exempted from the age limit in Italy. He can referee for another year despite being 45+.

Rizzoli’s decision to award a penalty to France in the semi-finals may have been technically correct – to the letter of the law – but wasn’t in line with the spirit of the game?

Pierluigi Collina, Hugh Dallas and Mark Batta are the technical experts. They immediately argued that it did concern a very unnatural position. Schweinsteiger’s hand should not have been there. That was a correctly awarded penalty. On the BBC, Rio Ferdinand  – as well as Thierry Henry who knows all about hand balls – said that there couldn’t be any discussion, because the defender’s hand shouldn’t have been there. As a referee you can only judge based on what you see. The day after the match, Joachim Low reacted positively.

Can older age for referees be detrimental at times with young players executing the game at a high pace?

No, not at all. Experience is paramount to assess game situations. It is better to have a referee, who has whistled in top games, than a referee, who may be physically fit, but doesn’t have the experience. That goes for the teams, but certainly for the referees. Experience is essential and you can only get that by refereeing matches at the highest level – domestically, in the Champions League and in the Europa League.

At Euro 2016, we had for example some younger referees, early 30s – Clément Turpin from France, Sergei Karasev from Russia, Ovidiu Haţegan from Romania, Szymon Marciniak from Poland, Pavel Kralovec from the Czech Republic and Svein-Oddvar Moen from Norway, who participated for the first time, but they all excelled. They did two games in the group phase, but in the knockout phase the older referees with more experience prevailed.

With the progression of the past four years, how far can a referee’s limit be pushed? Can they improve come Euro 2020?

A few referees are approaching the 45-year age limit, imposed by both UEFA and FIFA in international football. In a lot of domestic leagues, there is no such limit anymore. Martin Atkinson is a very good example. In the last decade, he has had an extraordinary trajectory. His body composition (as measured by the fat percentage) has been improved significantly (more than halved). He says that he has become a totally different personality. He is not the only one who could extend his refereeing career with the adequate and continuous guidance, based on an individual blueprint. That applies to players, but certainly also to referees.

Would you favor extending the age limit?

That’s a difficult question. In the Premier League you have referees, who are 50+. Belgium and the Netherlands have also abolished the age limit. As long as they meet the physical requirements, there is no reason [to implement an age limit]. There is, however, a difference between UEFA and FIFA: a Collina generation would have the level to prolong their career and block the influx of a new generation of young referees. I understand UEFA’s stance to adhere to the age limit, so that young referees from all the national associations can progress to the highest levels.

Back to Euro 2016, before the tournament special attention was dedicated to offside situations? 

That project started about four years ago with UEFA. As a sports scientist you always seek legal means to better prepare individuals for the task-in-hand. Neither France nor Portugal play the offside trap. Germany exploited offside situations in a delightful manner. They had clearly practiced that. There was always a player, Thomas Muller for example, who dropped back from an offside position and in behind another player would charge forward to latch on to a cross pass. They wanted to confuse defenders and perhaps also the linesmen. So the number of offside decisions can greatly vary from match to match.  We wanted to offer the linesmen more experience. Therefore, thanks to the financial support of UEFA for a 4 year PhD project, we developed an application ‘Perfection4Perception.’

After the workshop in April, we sent the assistant referees video clips every week. They had to assess an offside situation and afterwards got the applicable decision, the slow-motion images and a frozen image of the striker’s position at the moment the preceding pass was given. From the end of April until the start of Euro 2016, they solved 600 to 700 offside situations.

In this tournament, there were no fundamental offside situations that were judged wrongly. So, together with the assistant referee instructors who were involved during the past Euro for instruction and AR match analysis, Phil Sharp and Magic Wierzbowski, we will compare the performances in the games with those of the application. It’s akin to simulation training for pilots, surgeons or police officers.

Did the defensive and cautious nature of the matches help referees?

That’s difficult to assess. Euro 2016 had 20 games more, up from 31 games at Euro 2012. In the entire tournament, there were only three red cards. That’s a very limited number of sending offs. I have the impression an equal number of yellow cards were brandished at both Euro 2016 and at the previous tournament, which was considered to be a very fair competition [at Euro 2012: 123 yellow cards; at Euro 2016: 203 yellow cards]. We should cherish those facts, but that’s down to the refereeing and the team briefings. UEFA’s refereeing committee sent a delegate to every participant to pass on clear instructions about the new laws of the game [modification of triple punishment and introduction of goal line technology among others] with the aid of video clips and a lively powerpoint presentation. That has contributed to the understanding of players, coaches and teams of their fate [when infringing the new laws].

Has this been the best refereed European Championship?

At the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine Pedro Proença was the referee for the final and I remember clearly, when he walked up to the podium to collect his final award that the BBC noted that the referees’s contributions to the positive football on display demanded respect. The previous European Championship was well refereed. Euro 2016 was far more complex, because of the new organisation and the importance of the last group games. Those matches were decisive to determine the winner of the group, the runner-up and who’d progress and who’d be eliminated and so, in this championship – also because of the numbers of games – [the refereeing] was at least of the same, if not, of a higher level.

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