When the team line-ups are announced prior to a football match, the volume inside the stadium surges as the players' names ring out from the stands, the atmosphere thick with anticipation ahead of kick-off. A swig of drink lubricates the fans' voices, their chants converting the stage into a cauldron of noise. In the catacombs of the stadium, however, the sound of their cheers is filtered, making it seem as if the pitch is miles away, rather than just a few steps along a corridor. At this point so close to kick-off, there is silence in Sergei Karasev's changing room. The Russian referee shuts himself away with his team for a few minutes in order to focus. The officials sit together, take a deep breath and pause to set themselves for the task ahead. "It's become a tradition for us," said Karasev at the FIFA Referee Seminar in Abu Dhabi.
Ordinarily, though, the Moscow native is not so quiet. A passionate concert-goer, he is a fan of hard rock and heavy metal. Loud, up-tempo music is audible from his headphones even on match days, but just before kick-off a sense of calm sets in and he trains his focus on the upcoming 90 minutes. "When I'm on the pitch I feel I have a sense of responsibility," Karasev said. "It's a feeling that's grown stronger over the years as the level I've refereed at has increased." And with officials under the spotlight, their performances are observed in minute detail which means, "It's not easy being a referee," according to Karasev. Nevertheless, the Russian cannot imagine anything better. His passion for football stems from the 1988 European Championship, when he watched every game live on television and became determined to join a football academy. At the age of 16 he tried his hand at refereeing and is proud to be a FIFA referee today, sharing the field with the world's best players. "In order to be a successful referee you always have to be honest with yourself," Karasev continued. He is aware that mistakes can happen - but then nobody is infallible. "The most important thing is to learn from your errors and to keep working hard on yourself," he said. While he was working up a sweat in temperatures reaching 30 degrees in Abu Dhabi alongside 35 other potential FIFA World Cup referees in preparation for Russia 2018, the Final Draw took place in his home city of Moscow. For Karasev it would be a dream come true to officiate World Cup games in his homeland. The allure of the competition is therefore also tangible out in Abu Dhabi. "Come to Russia, you won't be disappointed," he concluded with a smile. "It'll be the best World Cup of all time, I'm sure of it".