With the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003 fast approaching, players from the competing teams are putting the finishing touches to their preparations. But they are not the only ones performing before the eyes of the world. Vital cogs in the smooth running of the game, the referees will also be under the microscope in the Emirates. Argentina’s representative Horacio Elizondo shares his thoughts with FIFA.com on the latest challenge awaiting the men in black.
Referees for UAE 2003
It all came as quite a shock to the Argentine.
“I found out I’d been assigned in January 2003. It was a bolt out of the blue” reveals the physical education teacher. “I believe we’re going to see a different tournament from the past, as the majority of the youngsters are already battle-hardened players. In South America, at least, a shortage of young talent is resulting in these youngsters being brought through too early.”
Aged 39 (he will turn 40 in November), Elizondo possesses an impressive track record at senior level. Having officiated in the first division since 1992 and on the international stage since 1994, he has taken charge of several highly charged matches in his time. His CV boasts several of the potentially explosive River Plate - Boca Juniors encounters in Argentina, two Copa América finals (Bolivia 97 and Paraguay 99), 13 South American zone qualifying matches (14 with the upcoming Uruguay –Brazil tie) and the FIFA U17 World Championship Egypt 1997.
“And to think I came into refereeing by accident,” he reflects. “In my student days, I was roped into refereeing a handball match between my fellow students. At the final whistle, the professor came to congratulate me on having kept the emotional side strictly separate from the rules. One thing led to another, and I found myself signing up for an Argentinian Federation training course. It was as if I’d been born to do it, and I never looked back. As time passed, I realised that refereeing combines three things that are cornerstones of my life: sport, teaching and justice.”
Elizondo was rewarded for his assured displays during the qualifiers for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, when on 1 September 2001, he took charge of the Group 7 clash between Spain and Austria at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium.
“It was an unforgettable experience for me, the high point of my career so far. The match was a dream to referee, with only 18 fouls and one caution,” he recalls fondly. Even though Spain romped home 4-0, the president of the Austrian Federation offered us a plaque engraved with our names.”
B>The Emirate challenge
In recent years, the pace of the game has increased dramatically, and referees have had to adapt to this and prepare themselves for what amounts to a triple challenge: to run, think and decide in a fraction of a second.
“I underwent a special physical preparation programme, but, in actual fact, it turned out to be pretty similar to my own daily routine in Argentina,” he says. “A referee’s physical condition is absolutely crucial. You have to be exact, precise, clinical even.”
Contested in January 2003 in Uruguay, the South American Youth Championship were marked by unusual violence and a worrying record number of cards shown. Even when dealing with young players, however, Elizondo is not an avid believer in flourishing cards at random: “You have to show respect to players in all categories. Some youngsters defend their nation’s flag as if they were on a real battlefield. That’s not good, but the referee needs to be perceptive enough to know when to opt for punishment and when to issue a verbal warning.”
Including the assistants, the Conmebol refereeing delegation will consist of nine representatives, the best known of whom are Colombia’s Oscar Ruiz (present at Korea/Japan 2002) and the Brazilian Wilson Souza. “I already know all the South Americans, and some of the Africans,” reveals Elizondo, who has been studying English for the past few years. “Command of the language is so important when you spend such a long period living with colleagues from all four corners of the earth.”
Where the regulations are concerned, the Argentine is right behind FIFA’s initiative to create refereeing trios of the same nationality or with the same first language: “It’s perfect, as we need to work as a team. It’s important for me to know what’s happening to my assistant, and I can tell just by hearing his breathing.”
During the competition, Elizondo will face the same potential fate as his colleagues: if his country’s team qualifies for the final phase, he will see his stay in the Emirates curtailed. A dilemma of career versus country, you might say. “I used to think of it like that, but now I’ve learnt to see the big picture,” he says philosophically. “Argentina is Argentina, and I’m me. What I really want is things to go well for us both. If that’s not the way the cookie crumbles, I can’t change it. That’s life!”