Student referee Conrad Berghoef is not comfortable with Orange not wearing the ‘One love’ captain’s armband. “What message are we sending to the kids on our amateur football pitches when we go after people like FIFA boss Gianni Infantino?”
w Of all the volunteering jobs you can imagine, that of a student referee in youth football is truly the best. Well, so for me. I have several volunteer positions in my Drachtster Boys football club, but on Saturday mornings I always return to the basics: between the lines, on a field where the cold steam hits and where I try not to slip on the autumn leaves, together with sixteen children ( luckily!) has escaped the gardener’s leaf blower.
I could do many other things on my free Saturday morning, but I feel happy as a participant in our national cultural heritage: amateur sports on the weekend. On a Saturday morning, I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but on a 64 x 42.5 yard field to run the game. Every game I’m in the front row, so to speak. What am I saying, i VIP seat .
Sometimes people ask me if I would like to whistle ‘a little louder’. In fact, they mean the ‘real job’: 11 against 11, maybe even as a KNVB referee. Apart from the fact that this has unfortunately been physically impossible for me for years – not because I am very old, but still I will spare you further details, it is not that important – I find the work as a student referee (youth under twelve years old) to important to move on to an older age as a judge.
The early years are so important for footballers. The experience, the technique, the teamwork, the camaraderie and especially the sportsmanship: the foundation is laid there. As I said, amateur sport is a cultural heritage, it is one of the main pillars of our society. The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough.
More than handing out corners
This is the reason why I really consider the flute my own educational and social task. I try to do a lot more than just award corners and goal kicks. Before the game, I call all the players to me, have a short chat and get all the players to shake hands or ‘box’ each other. Incidentally, I did not come up with that myself, it is a guideline from the KNVB.
The same KNVB also asks student referees to whistle as little as possible, to see if the players can figure it out together. And there are many more guidelines from the association, which should primarily benefit the fun of the game.
As a judge, you put your own spin on it. For example, I tie unwilling shoelaces, I try to keep a close eye on whether all players feel a bit comfortable on the pitch and, where necessary, I call managers and parents to order. It occasionally leads to a bit of an uncomfortable discussion, especially with managers who think they can say anything to their players and a lot to the referee, but usually we can figure it out and it’s not at the expense of the game .
And parents? Well… sometimes it goes better than others, but I have a feeling that with all the attention to coaching on the sidelines, the atmosphere is getting better and better. Good too.
I often whistle on our artificial grass field, opposite the clubhouse. In between, the rainbow flag has flown for a few years now. My club was the first in Friesland to raise that flag every Saturday. I’m proud of that, and I’m happy to explain why we do it.
For example, I’ve been asked a number of times by a player, ‘Hey referee, why do you have the gay flag?’ If I then explain that with that flag we want to show that everyone is welcome in our club, boy, girl, black, white, straight or gay, then that answer is enough. And play football again.
A year ago, a mother spoke to me in more detail about it. She thought her son, still in his early teens, hadn’t come out yet, ‘and of course that’s his business. But it’s nice to know that he can be himself here.’ In short, the flag is a symbol, but an important one.
Precisely for that symbol, there is now a lot to do, at the World Cup in Qatar, of course, a lot of the youngest football youth is also seen. The ‘One Love’ captain’s armband, in rainbow colours, was ultimately not worn due to threats from world football’s governing body FIFA. And although ‘FIFA’ is probably just the name of a computer game for most players, children really get something out of it. Much has already been said about it.
I myself understand the KNVB’s dilemma and I respect the decision. But as a football educator, I am not at ease. And it mainly has to do with FIFA.
Any youth referee can tell you that the play and behavior of professional footballers is reflected in the student box in positive and negative ways. As an audience, you will be spoiled on Saturday morning with the most beautiful heels, pannas and small things. But the peripheral phenomena also come into view: talking too much to the referee, ‘schwalbes’, wasting time… Nothing, by the way, you can’t solve in the field. Yet. Everything shown on television passes the children once. Fortunately, most professionals know their responsibilities.
However, what cannot be compared to being trained in the field is what the world football governing body FIFA is currently doing. Bought world championships in stadiums where thousands of victims have fallen. Players who are not allowed to speak because the intolerant host country might be offended. The megalomania of President Infantino, behaving like the dictator of a very wrong country.
This leads not only to a lot of protest from the public, but above all to a deep-seated cynicism and defeatism among football fans. Money rules, power corrupts. That’s how it was, that’s how it is and that’s how it will always be in football.
That’s why I appeal to the KNVB: Let your players complete the tournament this World Cup, but then leave FIFA. Preferably with the other countries that had joined the One Love campaign. It might cost you a nice tournament in 2026, but we often miss a tournament. With our wonderful cultural heritage called amateur football, we don’t need all of FIFA. Organize a European Championship once again or set up the Nations League.
Or better: In addition to the highly paid professionals, start again with the Dutch amateur Elftal. Bring football a little closer to the amateur clubs: after all, it is your kindergarten and your great strength in Dutch football culture.
Message to the children
In international football, you have to limit yourself to Europe for the time being. To be sure, the European association UEFA is not completely spotless either, but at least it sends a signal: We do not need the World Cup, and we will stand for our values of democracy, tolerance and fair play.
There are several sports where there is division between different federations: boxing, chess, darts. Unity is nice, but not at any price.
What message do we send to the children on the football field when we follow figures like Infantino? Just try to imagine life without FIFA. And I’m not talking about the computer game. Take a look at Spain-Germany, earlier in this World Cup tournament. You can’t get much better matches.
Maybe it’s not all as easy as I’m outlining now. But I would like to challenge the KNVB to at least give this thought experiment, a future without FIFA, a chance. At the moment, I still like being part of amateur football on Saturday mornings.
Because in terms of weekend football culture, the Netherlands have long been world champions.
Conrad Berghoef from Drachten is a student referee, youth education teacher and author.