Here We Go!
So far, Japan has been wonderful. I brought California weather and my taste for sushi with me. Fortunately, both have treated my referee friends, tournament organizers, and me well.
June normally marks the beginning of the rainy season in Japan. Heavy rain and wind can impact daily activities. However, to date, our days have been filled with California sunshine and exceptional conditions. The biggest challenge is keeping the top of my head from overheating and turning red. To this end, I am using a cap of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City presented to me by one of the local Utah referees just prior to my departure.
As the tournament progresses, watch for the impact of the elements on the games. The fields will hold up nicely as they utilize all the latest water management systems. But, how will the wet surface affect the new World Cup ball (players are already complaining that it is too fast and tricks opposing goalkeepers) as well as the play of attackers and defenders. Challenge yourself to see if the seasonal/climatic impact is noticeable as the tournament progresses.
One of the fantastic things of being a FIFA Referee is the travel and the opportunity to experience different cultures. For example, I have been fortunate to visit over 26 different countries since I received my FIFA badge in 1992. Although this is my third visit to Japan (once prior as a referee for the 1993 FIFA U17 Championship and twice on business), I continue to learn more about the culture.
Immediately upon the FIFA delegation's arrival in Japan (Monday), we were taken by bus to the Imperial Palace to meet the Japanese Imperial Prince and his wife. This is a very rare experience, and one that we will all treasure. The Prince and his wife were gracious hosts both with a sense of humor and a passion for "futbol". In fact, the Prince is the honorary Chairman of the Japanese Football Association (JFA). Meeting royalty is definitely part of the experience as is the continuation of our daily training scheme. Yes, we must be fit and our FIFA trainer from Belgium ensures we keep our edge. Each morning we head to an isolated soccer field (with a reasonably good pitch... most players and referees would love this type of field for our games), I throw on my cap, start my heart rate monitor, and the session begins. This training is important because we have our weight taken twice a week (I eat nothing the day before!) Both high and low intensity workouts are provided and often incorporate soccer balls. In fact, on Wednesday, I needed my shin guards as one of my opponents decided he was PLAYING for the World Cup final instead of refereeing for it.
Until Friday (opening game of the World Cup), the Japan Organizing Committee (JOC) has kept us very busy. We have had little time to take a breath. JOC has taken us to DisneySea theme park, Chinatown, and to a water therapy spa. Additionally, we have the luxury of massage therapists every day. After every workout session, the referees sprint (faster than most of us have done during the training session) to sign-up for a massage. We have been living the lives of kings and queen. This royal lifestyle will, however, taper off as we have now got down to the business at hand...the GAMES.
Speaking of games, Ali Busjaim, from the United Arab Emerites, was honored with blowing the first whistle, and he did so with the same confidence and professionalism that has earned him to be amongst a small group of referees who have participated in 3 World Cups. Ali refereed several games in MLS a few years back as part of the international exchange program. He is a true professional and gentleman. I was fortunate to be able to spend 4 weeks with him during my participation in the 2000 Asia Cup Championship in Beruit, Lebanon.
There is a huge burden on the opening game referee. As Ali did, the opening game officials must set the tone for the remainder of the tournament. Everyone will look upon the opening game referee's performance as the measuring stick for what FIFA wants from the officials. Ali showed poise, man management, and chose the appropriate moments to issue his yellow cards.
Even back home, referees chosen to do opening games (whether it be in a professional league, regional youth tournaments, or other such competitions) need to give that little bit extra and set the tone for your colleagues that follow.
Yesterday (June 2), I left for Sapporo. At 8:30 p.m. on Monday (Japan time), my dream of refereeing in the World Cup will be a reality. Sapporo is a domed stadium, hence, there will be no climate problems and the noise should reverberate. The sold out crowd should make the experience even that more enjoyable.