Refereeing brings camaraderie and team spirit

I do not need much encouragement to make some propaganda for the refereeing and to get handball people interested in this job. It is of course a function that is absolutely necessary for the quality and development of our sport. We need to be able to keep recruiting new referees. But it is an aspect of handball that, contrary to what one might conclude from the ease with which players, coaches and spectators seem to be able to justify criticism against referees, really has a number of very positive sides.

Those who have spent a number of years in refereeing will typically mention the challenges, the pressures involved in doing a high-level game, and the satisfaction derived from handling such a difficult job. But almost everyone will also highlight the camaraderie and team spirit among the referees as one of the main sources of enjoyment. The referees may be competitors for the opportunities to move on to higher levels, and it is often tempting to sit in the stands and have a different opinion on a situation. But generally speaking, there is a good deal of loyalty, mutual respect and friendship, partly because the referees feel that their colleagues are the only ones who really understand and appreciate their situation.

So it is not surprising that ex-referees who were colleagues for many years often find it a bit special to have a chance to gather in a relaxed atmosphere, perhaps over a few beers now that there is no longer a need to worry about the next fitness test. There are always a lot of ‘war stories’ to share and laugh at, both situations that are proudly remembered and others where one can now afford to admit that an observation or a decision was totally wrong. Often photos from games or from the social side of an event or a trip will help jog the memory and contribute to the ‘smart remarks’ and the volume of the laughter. I had the pleasure of being part of such a gathering a couple of weeks ago. We had no qualms about referring to it as a ‘dinosaur weekend’…

In U.S. handball we have only had a grand total of about 15 former IHF referees plus our current couple (Gosia Golus-Szubelak and Monika Nowak). To get the blood-pressure rising among some of our ‘ancient’ coaches, and to get some of our old-time players to bring out their ‘voodoo dolls’ all over again, I will remind about some of the names. It started in the late 1970s, when six of us became licensed in a course supervised by the then IHF PRC President Carl Wang. The others were Henri Schaff (who passed away prematurely), the Soviet emigrants Efim Faybusovich and Mike Furman, and the (then) younger ‘all-American’ Peter Buehning Jr. and Bernie Iwasczyszyn. Peter Jr and Bernie went on to referee in the 1984 Olympics and the 1986 Men’s World Championships. For the rest of us the emphasis was on PanAmerican competitions in addition to the events here at home. The latter included the Goodwill Games and a large number of invitation tournaments where some of the top national teams from Europe came over.

Then we had a new wave, where Thomas Bojsen was our Olympic and World Championship referee, first together with Bruce Boehne and later with Buco Anusic. During this period we also had IHF referees such as Bruce Mosberg and Thomas Kekes-Szabo in the Junior WChs. For this group, there were also frequent opportunities to handle the Latin American rivalries involving Argentina, Brazil and Cuba. But all along, we naturally also had the U.S. Championships, our U.S. Olympic Sports Festivals etc. So even in the absence of a national league, the opportunity for stimulating events was always there. But it clearly was, and remains, an extra challenge to recruit and retain referees in a setting where there is no ‘league pyramid’ with frequent matches of top quality and intensity.

The same difficulty exists in the majority of countries outside Europe, and also in some ‘smaller’ handball countries within Europe. The working conditions may not be ideal, the federation resources may be limited, and the teaching and mentoring of new referees leaves something to be desired. Moreover, the modest level of play may allow some of the enthusiasts to keep playing up to a relatively ‘advanced’ age. BUT, I really encourage all of you out there, both younger and older handball enthusiasts: refereeing is a great way to be part of the sport you enjoy, it might the best way in which you can contribute in your country, AND it really is likely to be a lot of fun — even if you now and then will get a reminder that you are not perfect… And while there are no retirement benefits in a financial form, you will have a lot of great memories to share with others!