Twelve kilometres might not sound like a long distance, but it is far enough to lose yourself in your thoughts when you are cycling to your first match as a referee, as Bjorn Kuipers once did. The miles slipped past all too quickly that day as he steered around one corner after another. “I was incredibly nervous,” the Dutchman recalled. The year was 1989, and Kuipers was just 16 years old. A few months earlier, his father encouraged him to attend a refereeing course after watching him on the pitch as a player. “I made life so difficult for the official,” Kuipers explained. “To be honest, I was such a disaster that my Dad thought I might like to give the role a go myself.” Fast forward 28 years, and the impertinent footballer has become an experienced and level-headed FIFA referee who relies on both his own judgement and that of his team-mates. “If you don’t believe in yourself and build confidence in your abilities, you’ll never succeed”, he said.
Kuipers was chosen to oversee the Champions League Final in 2014 and the Confederations Cup Final in 2013. The sight and sound of 82,000 home fans celebrating A Seleção’s victory in Rio de Janeiro was a very special moment. “That win gave the country a boost a year before the World Cup,” the Dutchman said. “I could feel the power of it on the pitch, everywhere. It gave me goosebumps.” Kuipers’ emotions were stirred again a year later when the list of the 25 FIFA World Cup referees was announced and he knew he would be returning to Brazil. “I can still remember the exact moment that I found out about my nomination,” he recalled. “It was a morning in January 2014, and the time on the clock was exactly 8.22am” The supermarket owner had already been sitting in front of his laptop in his office in Oldenzaal excitedly checking his emails for an hour at this point before the happy news reached his inbox. It was a dream come true – and recognition for a job well done. Anyone wanting to become a good referee needs to master the Laws of the Game. They must be willing to learn, able to make decisions and capable of communicating them. For Kuipers, however, mental strength and the ability to learn from mistakes are also vital. “If you’ve given a penalty incorrectly, you have to be able to work through that,” he explained. “If it’s still in the back of your mind during the next match, you’ll make more mistakes – because the fear of making the wrong decision will hold you back.” He also believes it is important to show character on the pitch without getting involved, “otherwise you have already lost”. While Bjorn Kuipers no longer feels the same flurry of nerves before a match that he did as a 16-year-old, he still likes spending time out on his bike. It was clear at the FIFA refereeing course in Abu Dhabi that he has also lost none of his teenage ambition and thirst for knowledge. “I always look forward to taking part in the preparatory seminars,” he said. “We referees are one big family, and that means we get the opportunity to learn and develop a shared identity.” As every session is different, Kuipers prefers not to compare or rank the many courses he has already completed. “I prefer to keep looking ahead,” he said enthusiastically, before heading off for another intensive training day with his colleagues.