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Q&A: Howard Webb: “We need to do things when the time is right”

While PRO has been adapting to the challenges of today, the organization has been busy preparing for what the near future holds – and more importantly, how to best get there.

The Bundesliga restarted competition on May 16, with the German league attracting eyeballs from across the globe. Everyone in sport looked on to see how they had set up to manage the requirements of providing a safe environment for the teams and officials.

Now, with a second weekend of play behind them, the rest of the world’s leagues are at different stages of when and how to follow suit. With that in mind, GM Howard Webb addresses what a return could mean for PRO and how it is preparing.

How much is PRO in communication with the domestic competitions, and at what stage are discussions at regarding a targeted return?

We have a great relationship with the leagues we service, primarily MLS, but also NWSL and USL. We are having biweekly meetings with MLS, making sure officiating considerations are made, that people are thinking about the role that officials play, and that the environment we go back into is safe for everybody. This is a constructive dialogue in working towards getting back onto the field in the next month or so.

How will COVID-19 testing be handled for referees in a return to play?

Testing is going to be very important, making sure that the officials go onto the field having been tested in the way the players are, and we’re working with the competition in relation to that. We don’t know for sure at this stage, but we’ll probably arrange for at-home testing to be made available for our officials, prior to traveling for a re-start.

It’s not possible for our officials to socially distance when they’re out on the field doing their job. The games will be meaningful when we get started again, and they’ll be officiated in the normal way, the same as they will be played.

If, in MLS, there is a tournament that will focus on one single location, how will referees prepare for that, and do you anticipate them tapping into a tournament mentality?

Having been at many tournaments myself, away for anything up to six weeks, it is a different experience. It’s a lot different than going back to your family after each game. If that’s what the return to play looks like, then it’s something that our officials will need to cope with, and we’re looking at ways to prepare them for something entirely different, in the best way we can.

Working in an empty stadium could have a reverse effect, and unlike in preseason, these games will have a consequence.

What other tests do you anticipate?

It’s undoubtedly going to be without people in stadiums, so that’s going to be a new experience as we usually prepare our officials for heated atmospheres and packed arenas. We have looked at coping with the psychological demands in those environments; it makes you better as your adrenaline is flowing, making you sharper as an official, just as it is for the players. Working in an empty stadium could have a reverse effect, and unlike in preseason, these games will have a consequence.

We’re looking at bringing in some referees from around the world that we know who have worked in empty stadiums, including Anthony Taylor, who refereed one of the last UEFA Champions League games behind closed doors in PSG against [Borussia] Dortmund. This will give everyone an understanding from his point of view of what was different, what took him by surprise, and the challenges he faced on reflection. We can learn from all of that – as well as our guest speakers, Mark Geiger and I will also share our experiences of refereeing in tournament environments.

Is there concern about officials being match-fit for the games?

I know MLS has done a lot of work in looking at how long the preseason should be, bringing in some experts, and we have contributed to that conversation as well. I’m keen to make sure that our officials have an opportunity to do some scrimmage officiating and training games when they arrive at a possible festival because it will be some time since they last took charge of a competitive game, going back to early March. This is so they can get into the flow and the rhythm of officiating a game.

We’ll look at how we can minimize the risk of injury to officials as well. Some officials may not have been able to properly sprint for a period of time because of a lack of facilities – we have to make sure that they’ve got time to build up to that.

How challenging has the mental barrier been for the group with not knowing when they could return?

It’s been difficult for some people to come to terms with because there’s no control over it; it depends on the individual and their circumstances at home, and what keeps them occupied. I’ve noticed some mental fatigue, some asking when [we believe] this will end, but by and large, the group has stayed positive and focused with a bright outlook for the future. They know that we are going to restart at some point and that requires some patience, and they understand that we need to do things when the time is right and when it is safe to do so.

The leagues are doing an awful lot and we can play our part, but it’s down to the competitions to decide, and we’ll service them once ready to go. I keep saying there’s a light at the end of this tunnel and that light is getting brighter. The daily circulations I’ve been sending out recently have all been about reopening rather than closing down, so that’s positive. But even then, we’re going to have to be flexible, and when we do reopen, we don’t know how things will develop, so there is an expectation our plans will continuously evolve.

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