Maybe some of you remember the revolution in UEFA's referee category system a bit more than two years ago. In June 2011, just before "PLC" came into office, UEFA's referee committee and administration decided to abandon the former system consisting of an Elite Group, a Premier Development Group, a Premier Group and the categories 2, 3 and 4. Instead of that, the current pattern was implemented to establish a broad Elite Development Group including young and promising match officials who should be accompanied on their way up to Elite - as the term already suggests. If further evidence was needed to recognize that this decision was fatally wrong, just focus on this Champions League 2013/14 group stage.
Considering the performances shown by some - but definitely not all (e.g. Mažić is a positive example) - Elite Development referees during the past two seasons, it is clearly visible that most of them are lacking in experience, mental stability and security. All these aspects are linked with each other. At the same time, there is no doubt that many of them are highly talented and originally deserved to have their place in this group. Assumed that the men in charge of the selection process, that brought these officials into their current category, did well when choosing referees like Tom Harald Hagen, Bas Nijhuis or Marijo Strahonja, the reasons for struggling at the highest level must have different reasons than their mere quality. The referee named first is a perfect example of that.
Norwegian Tom Hagen became an international referee in 2009. During the first two and a half years, he passed the lowest three groups including Cat. 4, 3 and 2 in order to become promoted to First Group in June 2011. He was given exactly four months to develop before he was appointed for his first Champions League match. And that was not in Plzen, Cluj or somewhere else. That was in Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan. In January 2012, he was then qualified for the next promotion as one of many officials who were included in the new Elite Development Group - he is there since today. The problems started then. For example, his team committed three crucial mistakes in Valencia-BATE underlined by UEFA's official match situation analysis given to their referees at a seminar in January 2013. A violent conduct was missed, a wrong penalty kick was awarded following a foul that clearly happened outside the penalty area and another clear penalty was missed directly in front of him. This season, our reports again captured three 7.8 performances for unfortunately inconsistent performances due to crucial mistakes. It was furthermore pointed out that we considered Hagen as a good referee in theory, but as one who has problems to cope with difficult matches and to approach a match with a self-confident and assured personality. Finally, last week, he was then assigned to handle Real Sociedad - Bayer Leverkusen under the observation of Pierluigi Collina. On the assumption that PLC does not plan him for a final, this circumstance probably means that Hagen might face a demotion (or a promotion, which is however not likely). This match under Collina's monitoring was one of those with a crucial mistake - in this case, it was a missed red card for serious foul play.
In a couple of days, we'll see what will happen with officials like Hagen. He is only one referee of many who were "burnt" by UEFA's category system. UEFA's referee convention clearly states that "possibilities for fast-track promotions should be made possible". That is a problem. Instead of a pace-based strategy, UEFA should pay more attention to an experience-based and quality-based strategy. Haste makes waste. Referees like Hagen (or Nijhuis etc.) were never given a real chance to develop due to the immense pressure arousing from this Elite Development Group. You normally stay approximately two years in this category status. You won't get many chances to convince the committee of your abilities. So you must do well, you must get a good mark. Instead of focussing on the match, you might focus on your mark average. Once a 7.8 occurred, that may not happen again. And then, it happens again and, oh God, Collina or Dallas is sitting in the stadium next time. This pressure lies in the system and overshadows the referees' concentration on the real task - handling a football match as good as possible and still enjoying this task. I don't know whether you ever watched a Champions League match refereed by Bas Nijhuis. His facial expressions and appearance suggest everything, but not joy for his task. However, one should say in all clarity that some performances really suggest that the official concerned is not able to cope with the highest international level for whatever reason. With all due respect, fairness commands that this phenomenon also seems to be apparent in broad parts of the Elite Group and even Champions League final referee teams. Anyway, in my opinion, the Elite Development Group has come to a dead end. It sets wrong incentives and is psychologically critical.
Elite Development Group has come to a dead end
Strong rumours have been raised that UEFA would soon abandon the Elite Development Group and extend their Elite Group to a higher number of officials. Upon The Third Team's request, UEFA neither wanted to confirm nor to refute that. Personally, I hope that a category change will come for the reasons mentioned above. Additionally, keeping the current system would mean several demotions if UEFA is consistent with their reports and marks. However, in First Group, there are not enough referees ready for a promotion to Elite Development. They need time (Kruzliak, Liany, Makkelie, Marciniak, Oliver, Zwayer etc.) to avoid what happened to Hagen et al. With a new system, referees like Aytekin, Bebek, Fernández or Orsato maybe move up (also due to their nationality). They would be given some sort of safety in this group, would have some seasons to develop in Champions League, to collect experience, to gain mental confidence and thus would not always face the typical promotion-or-demotion-process. Others would be demoted or re-categorized. And this is a fine difference: it would be very hard to explain someone like ,for example, Matej Jug or Sergei Karasev, who were promoted only last June, that they have to go back into First Group again. They have shown two good last seasons and would not deserve a "demotion". This must be sold and conducted as a "re-categorization" then.
Such a system change has also consequences in terms of payment, i.e. salaries. So it is definitely not a thing that can be decided in a moment. I am very sure that Collina, Infantino and co. will, as usual, consider the "big whole" and come to a good conclusion.