The men in the middle might just turn out to be the men that decide who wins Euro 2008. With no specific teams looking like world beaters, more and more is likely to come down to the breadth of a hair decisions that seem to determine the outcome of more and more matches these days. UEFA have selected twelve of Europe’s finest (so, no place for Uriah Rennie, then) and twenty-four assistants to keep an eye on proceedings in Austria and Switzerland this summer. Each referee has two assistants that will act as linesmen and there will be two further reserves at each match. They all attended a seminar last month at Regensdorf in Switzerland last month, and will be accompanied to the finals by a support group that contains a physiotherapist, a doctor and a fitness coach. In other words, they’re taking it all very seriously. So here are the twelve that will be booking players for taking their shirts off after they score, either not playing enough or playing too much injury time and being chased around the pitch and harangued by swarthy foreigners.
Konrad Plautz (Austria): Representing one of the host nations, 44 year old Plautz has been officiating at UEFA level since 1996, and in the Austrian Bundesliga since 1992. He was strongly (and wrongly) criticised by Rafael Benitez over the amount of time that he added on at the end of this year’s Champions League semi-final first leg between Liverpool and Chelsea. Rafa: the amount of time signified by the fourth official is the minimum amount of time to be added, and not a definitive figure. Plautz is widely described as “strict”. He wouldn’t be much use if he wasn’t, would he?
Frank De Bleeckere (Belgium): Like Plautz, De Bleeckere has a reputation that precedes him. In this year’s Champions League Round Of Sixteen match between Liverpool and Inter, he sent Marco Materazzi after twenty minutes. He was also in charge of four matches at the 2006 World Cup, including Argentina’s win against the Ivory Coast and England’s 1-0 snore-a-thon against Ecuador. He demonstrated his ability to cope with ill-founded pressure when he took charge of last season’s Champions League match between Chelsea and Barcelona without receiving any death threats.
Howard Webb (England): Likelihood of being described as “England’s only representative at Euro 2008″: 10/10. Webb started out in the North East Counties League, before progressing up into the Football League in 2000 and then the Premier League in 2003. In 2006 (and this is, I rather think, a case of somebody going quite far, quite quickly), he was in charge of the FA Trophy Final at Upton Park between Grays Athletic and Woking. Last year, he sent off three players at the League Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. In his five years in the Premier League, he has sent off twelve players. In the real world, he’s a policeman.
Herbert Fandel (Germany): Probably the best-named referee at the tournament. Fandel is one of the few referees to have been mentioned on here by name before. Last summer, he was in charge of the now famous match between Denmark and Sweden, during which his (correct) decision to give a last minute penalty to Sweden after Christian Poulsen took a swing at Markus Rosenberg whilst waiting for a corner to be taken caused a lunatic Danish supporter to run onto the pitch and attack him. Somewhat less controversially, he was also in charge of last year’s Champions League final between Milan and Liverpool. Surprisingly, Rafael Benitez didn’t criticise him for not playing half an hour of stoppage time at the end of the match.
Kyros Vassaras (Greece): Vassaras is one of the less experienced referees in our list, though he has been a referee for semi-final matches in two consecutive seasons’ Champions Leagues. He missed out on the 2006 World Cup finals because one of his assistants injured himself and missed the deadline for being fit in time for the tournament. He also covered last year’s ridiculous 2-1 win for Liverpool at the Nou Camp against Barcelona.
Roberto Rosetti (Italy): Rosetti made his name at the 2006 World Cup finals, when he was invited to the competition as a last minute replacement for an injured colleague. He had such an effect in FIFA that, had they not been all-European matches, he would have been selected to host one of the World Cup semi-finals. He officiated four matches at the finals, including Argentina’s 6-0 mauling of Serbia & Montenegro and France’s 3-1 win against Spain. According to his profile, he speaks Italian, French and English. So, two languages that will be any use this summer.
Pieter Vink (Netherlands): A second police officer amongst this dirty dozen (you think there might be some sort of link between refereeing and people that choose a life of petty authority?). From a parochial position, he was the first man to referee at the new Wembley stadium (remember that under-21 match between England and Italy last year?), and has also officiated Euro 2008 qualifiers and Champions League matches (all of UEFA’s referees for these finals are chosen for their Champions League experience, by the way).
Tom Henning Øvrebø (Norway): Very highly rated in Norway, it says here. He won the Kniksenprisen (that’s the Norwegian football awards) five times in six years. Some of you may remember him from the second leg of this year’s (you guessed it) Champions League quarter-final between Manchester United and AS Roma.
?uboš Miche? (Slovakia): ?uboš probably deserves some sort of award for the punctuation contained within his name alone, but he might also be the most experienced referee at the tournament. He started his FIFA career refereeing the match between South Africa and Paraguay at the 2002 World Cup finals, and then went on to officiate at the 2003 UEFA Cup final between Porto and Celtic, at three matches at Euro 2004 and again at the 2006 World Cup, including the Brazil vs Ghana and Argentina vs Germany matches. He was also voted as runner up in the International Federation of Football History and Statistics’ World Referee Of The Year in 2006.
Manuel Mejuto González (Spain): Between them, the referees at this competition have covered every major match played in Europe over the last couple of years or so. Liverpool supporters might have cause to remember him fondly – he was in charge of the 2005 European Cup Final, when… oh, something or other happened. Scots might not be so keen on him – he was in charge of their final Euro 2008 qualifying match against Italy, where his controversial free-kick award may or may not have led to Italy’s winning goal.
Peter Fröjdfeldt (Sweden): Another one with a fair whack of Champions League experience, Peter was in charge of this year’s quarter-final between Liverpool and Arsenal. He showed a certain amount of nerve giving the late penalty in that match, which saw Liverpool on their way to the semi-final. It’s his first major tournament.
Massimo Busacca (Switzerland): Last but not least, Massimo Busacca. Busacca has, to the extent that any of the above have, had something of a controversial time of it. It was he that failed to send off Manchester United’s Gabriel Heinze in the 2006 World Cup match between Argentina and Mexico, and also awarded possibly the worst penalty of the tournament, for a non-existent tug on Fernando Torres during their match against Ukraine. He also took charge of the 2007 UEFA Cup final, and the infamous match between Basel and and FC Zurich in 2006, when a late, late goal scored by FA Zurich’s Iulian Filipescu caused the worst riot in the history of Swiss football.
Coming soon – the change kits of Euro 2008.
(Oh, and here’s the referees’ guide for Euro 2008, as issued by UEFA, should you be interested – keeping you up to date with all the latest rule-tinkering)