It was early on Monday morning, three days before throw off of the opening game at EHF EURO 2020, when they began to excitingly file into a conference room in Vienna.
It began calmly enough: there were the pleasantries from EHF Secretary General Martin Hausleitner, who welcomed those present to the room. Then there were the warm words from EHF Competitions Commission (CC) Chairman Bozidar Djurkovic, and Member of the CC, Men’s Competitions, Jan Kampman, before EHF Competence Academy & Network Coordinator Helmut Höritsch explained the latest regarding video replay technology.
But if there was any remaining doubt who they were addressing, it became blindingly obvious when Dragan Nachevski held court at the front of the room. “Is that two minutes for the defender there?” Nachevski, bouncing up and down, pointing his fingers back and forth, appeals to his crowd.
We are, of course, present at the Officials’ Conference. Where EHF EURO 2020 really begins for those present in the room, where – over two days – the officials will get to grips with a variety of topics which are designed to enrich their refereeing skills and knowledge. These include an update on how to use the latest version of the digital scoresheet plus a presentation from revered mental coach Johann Ingi Gunnarsson.
Listen, discuss, prepare
A strictly invite-only event, the best of the best in the world of handball refereeing are here. A total of 23 referee couples from across Europe are joined by 18 referee delegates. Their job: to oversee and officiate at the biggest EHF EURO in history, the first time that 24 nations will compete for the title of European champion.
In a change to previous EHF EUROs, their preparation is a little different. Gone is the traditional pre-event course, usually held in late August. Instead, new measures have been introduced to ensure everyone is fully prepared with e-learning units and selected video training tutorials available on EHF platforms.
Now, inside the four walls of the conference room, their task is much simpler: listen, discuss, prepare. The words spoken here can have a major influence on the destination of the gold medal.
That is a fact not lost on Dragan Nachevski, the CC refereeing representative. “One decision could change our lives or the life of a player,” he says.
A hush goes around the room. It is serious and soon the Macedonian begins to click through screen and after screen featuring coverage from past EHF EUROs and from the VELUX EHF Champions League.
The clips are all of refereeing decisions. Good decisions, bad decisions, controversial decisions. Unexpected scenarios. Scenarios seen thousands of times. Clips where movement and positioning of referees are evaluated. Nachevski forces the discussion, demanding opinion. One clip is discussed among the group for almost 15 minutes. It is a healthy debate, and not everyone agrees.
“These officials are the best in the world and it is our job to ensure that they not only stay that way but also improve and learn,” says Nachevski, who has been in the role of assisting EHF referees for eight years and was a top-class referee for 27.
“In principle I could have shown 1,000 clips,” he says, honestly. “It’s difficult to choose. In the end there are 50 to 60 clips, a mixture of clips and interesting ones. The discussions are important. That’s why I try and get everyone talking, to get different perspectives.”
The wealth of information taken on by the referees and delegates is mind-blowing. It is not just Nachevski’s clips that they need to load into their brains before throw off. Their comprehensive two-day pre-tournament schedule also includes game administration, technology support, a fitness test, a rules test, media management topics and a talk from specialist mental coach, Johann Ingi Gunnarrson.
As Nachevski says, this it is all very serious business.
“It’s important that everyone knows how much work is done into helping referees,” continues Nachevski.
“A ref’s life is not easy. There is a lot of pressure. Federations invest a lot of time and money into a European Championship.
“Imagine one simple mistake from an official destroying all that work. Mistakes do happen – but what we try and do here is educate the referees to avoid those mistakes happening.”
With the help of Nachevski’s library of clips, together with the help of his fellow colleagues and a final good luck good luck message from EHF President Michael Wiederer ringing in their ears, the last-minute visual and audible reminders act as the perfect preparation for those responsible with the whistle at EHF EURO 2020.