First step in professionalising refereeing in the continent with selection of a pilot group of 20 referees contracted for a period of one year.
In 1934, Egyptian referee Mohamed Youssef made it to Italy to take part in the 1934 FIFA World Cup as the first African referee ever to officiate in the “Mundial”. But he did not blow the whistle in any game, making just an appearance in the qualifiers match between United States and Mexico few days before the World Cup kick off.
It had to wait till the 1966 FIFA world Cup in England to see a referee from Africa taking central stage in a World cup match. Egyptian Ali Kandil was the man in the middle when Chile and North Korea played for a 1-1 draw in Middlesbrough.
The referee of African referees continued, till there was a man from the continent in the World Cup Final. Late Moroccan referee Said Belgoula was the match official when France beat Brazil 3-0 to win their first ever World Cup title at Stade de France in 1998.
Now, as football continues to grow and embrace new techniques and technology both on and off the field, the demands for all aspects of the game to develop have become a crucial necessity.
In this regard, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has taken the first step in professionalizing refereeing in the continent with selection of a pilot group of 20 referees who will be contracted for a period of one year.
This is curated in a semi-professional project that will see the referees put on a contract and given training facilitation. Eighteen male referees and two female referees have been selected for this maiden project.
“Footballers and coaches are now professionals and it is only referees who are still amateur. There was a need to upgrade our referees and put them in the professional category as well.” CAF Refereeing manager Eddy Maillet
In selecting the maiden group for this project, the CAF refereeing committee has one eye cast on the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and African representatives for the tournament will be picked from this group of 20.
Maillet explains that in picking the initial group of 20, the Refereeing Experts sought to strike a balance between the six CAF Zones while age, competency and performance in the past top level games, Vide Assistant Referee (VAR) compatibility, physical condition and technical abilities were also considered.
“They will have monthly allowances and we will assign two instructors in each of the six CAF Zones to work with them physically and technically. We will supply them with equipment, and they will be monitored and have sessions on Zoom with monthly assessments,” Maillet explains.
The enhanced training will help the arbitrators to match up with the ever-evolving nature of the game especially in terms of physical demands. According to a research conducted from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, players averaged 11.2km of running per match.
In the past few years, this has continually been on the rise and the research further points out that the high intensity short bursts have nearly doubled in the last three years. Sprints have also increased by 40pc.
Currently, in the professional game, a player can average at least 15.2km of running.
With a referee required to be at least 18m away from the ball to improve accuracy, the demands of their fitness levels have also increased with the rise in players’ fitness.
This has necessitated the need to have them move towards being professional and dedicate more of their time to training and keeping fit.
To meet the demands of fitness, the referees should be training at least three to four times a week and this means an increased dedication of time and resources.
“The training will be full time, and the essential thing for the referees is to perform. The program is well structured to ensure that they attain the right levels of physical fitness,” Maillet explains.
He adds; “This is a new project, but the concept is clear, and this will help raise the level of African refereeing.”
Once the pilot project is reviewed in the next few years, CAF will look to expand the program to include assistant referees as well as increase the quota of female referees.
“We will look at how the program works and what the result is. We want to see them performing because this is a performance-based program. In my mind, we can include the assistant referees in the next two years after evaluating the program. We also have to really convince people that this program is working, and we are getting results,” says Maillet.
With the level of officiating in Africa continuously growing, the CAF Refereeing Manager believes that soon, we will have more arbitrators from the continent working on global matches.
Among his targets as well is to ensure they get younger referees who can have more longevity as well as meeting the strenuous physical demands of the game. From the last Total Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament, the average age of the referees was 34.9 years.
“We are bringing younger referees who can sustain in the program a bit longer. We want to continue identifying young talent, work on capacity building with the Member Associations (MAs) especially in terms of technology. We want to have referees who are least 30 years old joining them program then they can be in for the next 15 years,” Maillet notes.
He adds; “For my vision, I want to do more scouting; go out sit one weekend like in Nigeria for example and see the referees. We are looking for certain kind of referees who are intelligent, understand the game, played the game before and who train hard and have the passion. This you have to see with your eyes.”
Maillet also hopes the new pilot project will open doors for more African referees to do FIFA World Cup matches.
“The arrow is pointing in the upward direction, but we have a lot to do. We also need to concentrate more on training of instructors. If we have better instructors, we have better referees.”
“I also want the Federations to copy the model CAF is taking in terms of development. If they can also do this and give their referees contracts, then it will also do well in improving our levels.”
With this new program, Maillet believes the sky can only be the limit for African referees and it is only just a matter of time before an arbitrator from the continent gets to officiate a FIFA World Cup Final.
“It has been a long time since an African referee appeared in the World Cup final for the first (and to moment, last) time. We are hoping to see more and more African referees taking central stage in the globe’s biggest competitions”, Maillet concluded.