June 9, 2014

"An Absolutely Awesome Journey" became true for Jerome Damon

Today we count down the last 3 days until the World Cup will be kicked off, but with different contents: The 3rd Team is proud to present you an exclusive interview with World Cup 2006 and World Cup 2010 Referee Jerome Damon of South Africa. The 42-year old teacher from Cape Town afforded great insights into his personal experiences, African refereeing and the work done by FIFA to optimize refereeing at their World Cups.


The 3rd Team: Dear Jerome Damon, at first we are interested in how you got first in touch with The 3rd Team and how you consider the internet community that follows refereeing at the highest level.

Jerome Damon: We are unmistakably all part of the global village. Technology has connected all of us from different parts of the world and brings friends and family together right there in cyberspace. As a result of this, there is no wishing it away and so therefore as an international referee (then) and retired international referee now, I felt that it is important to be available to the “world” to attach a face to football referees, especially an African face, since we are all well versed with the legendary Pierluigi Collina.
I consider the cyberworld a vital tool in enhancing the image of match officials and also educating the masses. I do however take great care in separating the personality from the incident, so I am keen to clarify a refereeing decision based on the FIFA LAWS OF THE GAME. It is not always possible, but that would be my first port of call.  

Imagine you have to convince a young football enthusiast to take the whistle instead of the studs. Why should he or she become a referee, what do you tell him or her?

I have had the pleasure of seeing young referees on the local park and convincing them to drop the studs in favour of the whistle and the method was quite simple: “Are you ever going to represent South Africa (in this instance) as a footballer, if not, why not try refereeing? You get to see the world, travelling for free and get paid to do it!” I would then go on to site some of my experiences.

I have however found that setting the example for others to follow is often enough. I did exactly that with Naasif Julies, a young South African FIFA referee – I saw him playing football and then the next game he refereed. I saw that he had talent and I set about convincing him to take up the whistle instead. And now, South Africa is richer for that decision and only time will tell before he is exposed to the rest of the world at a FIFA World tournament, of that I have no doubt.

Naasif, like most, asked me how I became a referee, and I immediately pointed out to him that I never played football in my life but I did get to see the world…that seemed to be enough.

If you had the choice between attending a World Cup for your nation South Africa, would you like to represent it as a referee or as a national player?

Without any shadow of a doubt – the man in the middle! My dream since starting out on my journey in football was to represent South Africa as a referee in the World Cup – I was very fortunate and blessed to have realized that dream as not many can say that they have achieved theirs.

You had the honour to attend two World Cups in a row. Germany in 2006, as fourth official, and South Africa in 2010. What are key experiences you like to share with us?

“Welcome to Frankfurt-  you are the best 44 referees in the world” and with those words, Mr Sepp Blatter set the tone for what was the start of an exciting world cup journey for 44 referees. It was a good feeling to be acknowledged in that way and I am sure that all of us in the Hotel Gravenburgh felt it too.That was back in 2005 and by 2006, we were wittled down to 28 refereeing trios – that after rigorous testing and monitoring by the FIFA Instructors. (And in the lead up to 2010, the testing and monitoring became more intense).

The preparation for both World Cups encompassed all of the FIFA Refereeing Departments: Physical, Technical, Psychological and Medical. FIFA left no stone unturned to ensure that we were in the best condition possible to meet the demands of its showpiece. The Physical instructors ensured that our fitness was monitored in our confederations – to the extent that our training programs were tailored according to individual needs. The outcome was that match officials could be in the best position to take the best decision in terms of the Laws of the Game.

The Technical instructors ensured that all the match officials were on the same page and moved towards consistency because FIFA acknowledged that because we were from all around the globe, our experiences differed and so too the levels of competition we were exposed to in our domestic leagues as well as in our confederations. One of fondest memories was being designated by FIFA to referee the European Zone World Cup qualifier: Croatia vs Iceland over the Easter Weekend in Zagreb. I remember the raised eyebrows from some officials – “Why was FIFA sending African match officials for our match?” One actually let it slip that they felt that they were being undermined because we were there! Really! But that is the harsh reality of refereeing – not everyone will be pleased.  

The Psychological instructors also did all sorts of industry testing to lend support to match officials as we prepared for, and debriefed from matches. For the doubters, it became especially useful during both World Cups: the “Battle of Nurenburg” where Russian referee, Valentin Ivanow issued a record 22 yellow cards in one match; “The triple-yellow card trick” by English referee, Graham Poll who did not send off Croatian, Josep Simunic after giving him a second yellow card, instead he went on to give him a third and, of course, who can forget “Zidane Madness” in the final match in Berlin? The Psychological department certainly had its hands full in having to debrief all of us – and note I say ALL of us – because in the build up to the World Cup we interact so often with one another that we become “family” who experience highs and lows of World Cup together.

I remember feeling absolutely gutted in 2010 for Jorge Larrionda (Uruguay) and Italy’s Roberto Rosetti. Both these match officials, in my books, were early favourites to referee the showpiece final (just like Ivanov and Poll were in 2006) but “Black Sunday” (no reference to historical disasters) put that all to bed in an instant. Larrionda was a stylish, very talented match official. He was highly respected and honoured in CONMEBOL and FIFA. Unfortunately “that goal” in Bloemfontein: England vs Germany (and I know of a number of Germans who quickly reminded the English of 1966), which was impossible to adequately adjudicate without technology, ended his dreams, shredded it to tears.

Roberto had a special connection with me and Mexico: I was the fourth official in Germany when he officiated in his first World Cup match – Iran vs Mexico in Nurenburg and again in 2010, his last World Cup match, at Soccer City (Johannesburg) where Mexico were knocked out by that “controversial” goal against Argentina. It was like we had come full circle – although I would have liked it to have ended differently. I certainly think that all these match officials mentioned here should be remembered for their immense contribution to the beautiful game instead of the ONE MOMENT that history seemed to unfairly mark them with.

The debriefing the next day was the gloomiest I had ever felt in football. I felt as if something had died, and indeed it did-  the dreams of my brothers were being mourned.

The beauty of World Cup though is that as one dream ends another begins and it certainly did for Elizondo (ARG)  and Archundia (MEX) in 2006 and Webb (ENG) (and Irmatov, Kassai and Nishimura) in 2010. They went on to mark their names in the echelons of FIFA and forever will have left precious memories of two great finals.

To a certain extent, you know how Brazilian Sandro Ricci and his teammates feel right now. In 2010, Enock Molefe and you were the only referees representing the home nation. How does that feel?

Firstly, one is humbled by the opportunity to be part of the World Cup and secondly, one is honoured to represent one’s country. There can be no doubt that the expectation looms large for the “home” official to perfom well, but he will do well to concentrate on doing what he does best, and that is refereeing. Sandro Ricci’s style got him to the World Cup and it will certainly get him through it. 

At the moment, the 90 match officials chosen for the World Cup are gathering in Brazil and counting down the days until the kick-off. How do you sense these days as a referee?

The build-up to the WC is certainly a time for intense focus and preparation – in 2010 that involved getting used to the vuvuzela, in 2014, maybe it is the distraction of the bikini-clad samba girls in the stand? Who knows?

Jokes aside - FIFA also ensures that as much as the t’s are being crossed and the i’s dotted, there is time to relax and shift some attention away from what lies ahead but it is like trying to stare pass the elephant in the room. The dream and journey is about to reach its climax. So sure, the tensions are there, but all under control – a little bit of nervousness is good to ensure grounding and humility. Every match official prepares differently but one thing is for sure, everyone is looking forward to the announcement of the designations MATCH 1 and the subsequent matches. One thing FIFA does guarantee at least one match per match official in Round 1 and that is the primary target. If others come along, that is bonus. Everything is geared to making a good first impression. My mentor, Irishman, Errol Sweeney always said to me: “You only have one opportunity to make a first impression so make that count!” 

Are the match officials kind of quarantined during the World Cup? How much are you able to stay in contact with your family, friends, maybe even job?

The FIFA Refereeing team all stay in-house at RefsHQ for the duration of the tournament. In 2006 we stayed in a hotel along with other guests but in 2010 we had an entire hotel complex to ourselves. So you could say that we were “quarantined” but it certainly did not feel like it as our day is fairly structured: Breakfast, training, technical debriefing, psychological preparation and watching matches. One thing I loved was that FIFA took us to watch matches (something the Referee’s Department encouraged strongly) and experience World Cup to the fullest.

FIFA  is family and the Ref’s team ensures that we live as normal-a-life while in camp as we can and stresses the importance of maintaining contact with our support teams at home. It is a standard tradition that Sunday’s are family days and our instructors will “check” on us if we have checked in with home. Therefore they would set up our own IT space with free wi-fi access for all of us. Skype is encouraged whilst social networks are strongly discouraged – for obvious reasons, especially with match fixing a sore blight on our sport.

In Germany we spent most of our down-time in the gardens and around the swimming pool or cycling in the forest adjacent to the hotel lapping up the warm German summer, however in South Africa, we spent most of our time around the games room and internet cowering away from the cold African winter (ironic don’t you think?)

Referees more and more become real athletes. How do referee teams close a successful matchday – is having a beer allowed?

Successes must be celebrated! So for me (and many others) beer and wine (in moderation) is most welcomed. But of course we are a diverse bunch from different cultural background and religions so while it will be beer for some, for others it’s a long rubdown in the physio room, whilst for others quiet meditation or just a long sip of espresso (thanks to my Italian friends [who does not believe that after Rosetti's review of a special espresso machine in "Kill the referee"], I got to appreciate the fine art of drinking espresso after dinner and not staying awake half the night – let’s not even talk about the tea from West Africa!)

Back in 2010, there were special training sessions for the match officials under the sound of vuvuzelas most of the foreign referees (specially the Europeans and Asians) were not used to. Some TV channels even decided to filter these sounds. Was it an advantage for you to be used to these sounds from your domestic league experience? Or are you able to fully ignore such auditive input on the football pitch?

Although we did our training with vuvuzelas blaring in the background, I do think that it was much ado about nothing. As a match official we are geared to filter out all other sounds. Many do not believe me when I say that even when there is a capacity stadium all blowing their vuvuzelas, I am still able to hear what players are saying to one another and to me. I did not hear any complaints from my friends from around the world so I guess it was just a world prejudice being exercised, lead by the self-important Europeans. So why such a harsh criticism – World Cup is about experiencing and embracing different cultures and way-of-doing things, if that were not so, then we could all just go back to our confederations and have our own competitions. Heaven forbid that the world’s prejudice be entertained when the World Cup heads to the Middle East!!!

We all know the feeling of the final whistle. The job is done, in the best scenario players and coaches shake the hands with you and congratulate you for a good performance. But FIFA’s work does not end here. How are the performances analyzed? How much emphasis is laid on the mental part?

On match day, the technical instructors will watch the match on the televisions at RefsHQ. They will bookmark match incidents that were either correct or incorrect – good practice and not. They will then put a package together of the common (and uncommon) threads for DEBRIEFING. The debriefing happens on Match Day +2 where all the match officials not officiating gather after lunch to debrief the matches. The incidents are shown on a big screen (in SA we had 2 big screens and 4 small monitors around) so there is no hiding away. The idea is “man-up” to your decision and to improve going forward to if you see your match on the screen you have to stand up and explain how that decision was reached.

It is only human to want only the good being discussed but that this far removed from reality, so we are well trained to deal with all the aspects of this debriefing. Admittedly, it is nerve-wrecking to say the least and you can almost hear the collective sighs of relief when the DEBRIEFING is wrapped up by the FIFA HOD.

All aspects of the game are crucial to make the complete referee so whilst the advances in the mental/psychological development is lacking in some quarters, great strides are being made.

Having already mentioned Enock Molefe, it is worth to point out you worked with him for many years at multiple tournaments – same counts for Celestin Ntagungira of Rwanda. Has refereeing the potential to make friendships grow even off the pitch?

FIFA friends are friends for life! That certainly is the case for me. I have been enriched by the sharing my life with others around the world and to this day I still have contact with them, although not as regularly as I would have liked. I will always remember with fondness the class of 2003 – Ravshan Irmatov and Marco Rodriguez will be in Brazil and countless others.

Without Celestin and Enock (not forgetting Justice Yeboah from Ghana [WC 2006, Ed.]) my World Cup dream would not have been realized. We still have one outstanding promise to keep – a family holiday somewhere on this beautiful planet…only time will tell.

"FIFA friends are friends for life!"

The recent World Cup shows the remarkable need to collect the refereeing quality of diverse regions in the world. This means that FIFA has to count on reliable and very good referees from Asia, Oceania and also Africa. The old prejudice suggests that African officials cannot cope with their European or South American colleagues’ standard. How do you contradict people claiming this?

Well, one only has to look at the recent history of match officials refereeing in world tournaments to see the strides that have been made around the world – I mean who would have thought that a referee from Uzbekistan would referee the opening match in 2010? Or even an African referee a final, but it happened in France, 1998 when Said Belqola (Morocco) was the man-in-the-middle with my countryman, Achmat Salie on his line. The sooner we all lose our prejudices, the more beautiful the game becomes. 

How do you regard the chances the 3 + 2 African referee teams have at this World Cup 2014 and in the future? What is needed to improve refereeing in Africa and enhance its international estimation and reputation?

All match officials stand an equal chance so it is actually what happens on the day that matters most. It was the legendary Pierluigi Collina that said: “[You] do your best and someone else decides if it is good enough” (sic) and that sums it all up – this was in response to journalist who asked him if he was not disappointed about not getting the showpiece in 1998.

I believe that CAF is firmly committed to improve refereeing around the continent. With the current RefCom and Eddy Maillet as HOD, given their vision and their collective experience of FIFA tournaments, there is no doubt African refereeing is on the up.

No one gave Nelson Mandela a chance to effect peaceful change in a racially segregated South Africa given his inhumane incarceration…but that is all history now is it not? So too, I believe the world’s dim view of African officiating will change and I believe that this World Cup will be the game-changer.

Having been an international referee since 2000 and having, among others, joined four Africa Cup of Nations, you were dropped from the international list after a failed fitness test in July 2011. In an interview Jan ter Harmsel of Dutch Referee Blog (who facilitated this interview, thanks for that!) led with you in 2013, you mentioned referee education and development as one field of occupation in future. Did this goal change, do you have new ambitions? How would it be to join your former colleague and friend Celestin Ntagungira in the FIFA Referees’ Committee?

From the moment that I finished my international career in 2011 as a result of an injury that I sustained (admittedly the injury could not have come at a better time – I was burnt out and had nothing left in the tank to give. The time had come for me to step aside for the next generation to continue their journey), I had my eyes firmly set on improving refereeing in South Africa, Africa and then at FIFA level. I have no doubt that I have the skill and experience required to succeed at all these levels, so if the opportunity arises and the timing is correct I will definitely grab it and embrace it fully.
However, until then, I will continue to referee in our domestic league here in South Africa.

Last question: How would you describe the World Cup with 3 key words?

An Absolutely Awesome Journey… (4 words, apologies)!!


The 3rd Team cordially thanks Jerome Damon for these long, insightful and honest responses!

2 Comments:

  1. According to Spanish journalist @isaacfuoto:

    Brazil - Croatia: Nishimura (JPN)
    Spain - Netherlands: Rizzoli (ITA)
    Chile - Australia: Doue (CIV)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous10/6/14 20:45

    Very good interview and refreshingly sincere answers. Motivates me a lot to keep up my refereeing!

    ReplyDelete

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