While most of the attention at the UEFA European Under-19 Championship is focused on the eight teams who are hoping to lift the trophy in Jablonec on 26 July, there are another group unobtrusively going about their business who play just as important a role in the tournament – the 16 Prague-based match officials.
The "ninth team" at the finals comprises six referees, eight assistants and two fourth officials from the Czech hosts. And, as Scotland's William Collum told uefa.com, the group has rapidly united to support each other through these finals: "The tournament has started well; we arrived the Thursday before it kicked off, had a fitness test on the Friday and then it was straight into the matches. We've been coming together as a group, there's been some good bonding here."
'Building a rapport'
At 29 Collum is already something of an old hand at these events having also worked at the European U17 Championship in Luxembourg in 2006, although he believes the two-year age difference is telling. "The referees here are more experienced; there's a couple of years' experience behind you," he explained. "Some of us have been at a tournament before so we're used to it. In general it's a similar kind of set-up with the debriefings and so on, but the main thing is we have more experience. It's about building a rapport with the players; we've been told man-management is very important and communication is vital. Some people imagine refereeing is only about giving out cards but it's very important to talk to the players and educate them as well."
A regular in the Scottish Premier League, Collum believes his experience in Luxembourg two years ago has made him a better official, adding: "Those finals have helped me greatly, then we were in the early part of our international career. We learned lots there and I feel much more confident as a result of the nurturing through the refereeing process I've had over the last two years. We're told to be consistent in our application of the laws. It's perhaps easier to speak to the players in Scotland, perhaps because of the common language, but you must adjust accordingly here and use body language to help yourself through."
In addition to the support they receive from each other, match officials are closely monitored by two observers from the Football Association of the Czech Republic and Jozef Marko and David Elleray of the UEFA Referees' Committee. "We've made a very good start," Elleray told uefa.com. "The referees are applying the UEFA guidelines as used in UEFA EURO 2008™. As with EURO 2008™ the committee went to speak to all the players in all the teams so everyone knew what to expect and we've had a very good level of Fair Play so far."
'Professional and focused'
The role of the referee observers is crucial and varied, as Elleray explained. "We're the representatives of the Referees' Committee so we make the appointments, with our two Czech colleagues we watch the matches and give feedback. We look at positive decisions by referees and assistant referees and also where we can improve. By the end of the tournament we want the officials to be even better than they are at the moment." The Englishman's advise for young referees is simple: "Be very professional and focused. Watch as many matches as you can and learn from the best referees."