insight - Jerome Damon

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Occupation - FIFA Referee 2010

At home in Cape Town, Jerome Damon is a school teacher. But this month he swaps the classroom for the playing field as the only South African appointed by FIFA to the World Cup referee panel.

It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly: “It’s an awesome and also a humbling experience; awesome because obviously it’s every referee’s dream to officiate in a World Cup; humbling because I get to do so in South Africa.

”Like celebrated former English referee and teacher David Elleray (who went on to become a FIFA referee assessor), Jerome acknowledges his day job is good grounding for his more high-profile occupation: “Yes, I think there’s a complementary effect between refereeing and teaching. In education you have to manage volatile, impressionable minds and personalities, and I suppose that’s exactly what happens on the football field.

”Taking up his whistle 20 years ago as a 17-year-old, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a respected local referee, so Damon agrees that refereeing is probably in the blood. Even so, his progress to date has been impressive; taking in four Africa Cup Of Nations tournaments along the way, as well as being a fourth official at the 2006 World Cup and taking charge of last year’s explosive World Cup qualifier between arch rivals Egypt and Algeria.

As for refereeing in general on the African continent, Damon feels the standard bears comparison with the European elite: “Given the fact that we have all undergone the same processes with FIFA, the playing field has become sort of levelled. Although the biggest difference between European and African referees is that European referees are exposed to big money football, whereas in Africa there’s not such a lot of money riding on leagues and competitions. Having said that, stick an African referee into any match in Europe; we’ll definitely be able to hold our own and acquit ourselves well in terms of officiating at that level.

”As for Damon himself, it seems no match is too daunting for a man who rises to the big occasion: “I think I thrive on pressure; I think the bigger the stakes the better I perform and the more focused I become. I don’t know if that’s an instinctive thing or a learned thing, but I have the mechanisms within me to deal with the pressure and I have a very supportive team; we understand one another’s strengths and weaknesses and we also accept that we are not going to have a flawless game, but we’re certainly going to try our best to eliminate most of the errors.

” For the World Cup that team comprises three Africans and, importantly, it’s a tried and tested combination, as Damon is keen to stress: “Yes, we’ve been together for the past five years and that’s part of FIFA’s philosophy. You know you’re part of a team; you mould yourself into a family, so that you are intuitive on the field of play. I have Enock Molefe from South Africa and my other assistant referee, from Rwanda, is Celestin Ntagungira.

”As things stand, all three of Damon’s team hold down day jobs, with football refereeing still a part-time occupation in South Africa. But the Cape Town whistle-blower would be happy to become a full time professional: “Yes, I’m definitely in favour of that. It frees up your time much more; it allows you to commit yourself and all your energies into one specific area. At the present I have to be a family man, an educator, and a referee all in the same breath – and that can take up a lot of one’s time.” Especially galling when the job also involves its fair share of abuse. On the field it’s water off a duck’s back, according to the man in black; off the field, that’s a different matter: “The only time it touches us is when people take it off the park and want to impinge on your personal space; you know, in your face in a restaurant two days after the game or something like that. That’s when it has the potential to affect you in a bad way.

”Off the field of play Jerome Damon is a rugby union fan; so I wonder if he envies his rugby officiating colleagues the esteem in which they seem to be held?: “Yes I do get envious, because there is so much respect for match officials in rugby.

”So could football learn from rugby? Damon is dubious: “I think we’ve gone too far down the road to rein this one in. In the past we’ve allowed too much to happen and for it to become the acceptable norm, so that if we started clamping down now, players would look at us like we’re trying to steal centre stage. I think the best way forward is just to manage the process and to ensure we don’t become abused by players.

”There’s no bigger stage than the World Cup on which to ‘manage the process’, but Jerome Damon is keeping his eye on the ball and looking no farther than his first match: “For me it’s not about who I referee, it’s just a big honour and a big privilege to be officiating at the World Cup and I’m not looking forward to anything else but game one.”

The ref’s decision is final.

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