An interview with elite FIFA referee István Kovács.

I had the pleasure of interviewing István Kovács, one of the elite FIFA referees from Romania. István is ethnic Hungarian and has dual Romanian-Hungarian nationality. He has just returned home from the Euros, his first major tournament, where he had 2 fourth official appointments and refereed the group C match between North Macedonia – the Netherlands. He was kind enough to give up some of his time to do an interview and provide some insightful information about the additional hard work that referees put in when preparing for a major tournament and then during the tournament itself.

Name: István Kovács
Age: 36 (16 September 1984)
From: Nagykároly (Carei)

Do you have time for any other hobbies?
Yes, I do, I like to read, to discover new places and new things, to play tennis and listen to music.

Did you play any other sports as a child, or do you play any now?
I used to play football in the 3rd division until I turned 20.

What has been your biggest highlight so far?
Euro 2020.

And the lowest point?
Lowest point was after one match in 2014, but don’t ask me which one, I’ve already forgotten it 🙂

What skills do you think are important to be a good referee?
Mentally strong, good Psychologist, self-confident, to be able to learn from mistakes and move forward, a good feeling of the game and of course physical preparation.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career and why?
Here I have a very long list of people, starting with my father and my mother because they always supported me in my difficult times. There is a person Szilagyi Stefan who is the president of the local football association from my region who I belong to, he opened the first doors to me.

Sandor Puhl was the first referee who I remember and because of him I started my refereeing career, then on my long path I met several referees who influenced my development. Romanian former referee Balaj Cristian was a person who gave me advice when I was aged between 22-26. Since then, Alex Deaconu, Milorad Mazic, Viktor Kassai, Roberto Rosetti.

But the biggest impact was from Kyros Vassaras, who taught me a lot of things, his way of thinking about football situations and his presentations at the seminars made me a better referee with the years and I’m very grateful because of this.

What is the best stadium that you have ever refereed at?
I have refereed in some very nice stadiums, I don’t have a favourite one, my dream is to referee at least a single match in each continent of the world.

Do you have a favourite referee kit?
Favourite referee kit is black.

What made you choose refereeing?
I chose refereeing because I realised that I can’t reach the highest level as a football player.

Can you remember your very first ever game?
I was 15 and was played between Vointa Lazuri-Unirea Piscolt.

What is your favourite thing about being a referee?
The refereeing is my life, I like everything that I receive from it even the bad days…because I learn from everything.

What is your normal weekly training routine/regime during the course of the season? What is your normal match day routine? Do you have any particular superstitions?
I do a combination of HI trainings, pre-match preparation, strengthening program during the week, depending on when the match is, then on the matchday I don’t take breakfast, I eat only once at lunch time, 7 hours before the game.

I go for a walk in the morning, then after lunch I always sleep in order to have my mind completely free.

If you make a mistake during a game & realise soon after that you have made one, how do you motivate yourself to keep going for the rest of the game and not let it put you off? What about if you don’t realise until after the game? Are there any specific steps you take to try and make sure that you don’t make a similar mistake in the future?
At the beginning was a little bit difficult not to think about the mistakes during the match, but now I move forward after every decision and try to take the most accurate decisions for both teams. Now it is much easier because we have the VAR so we know after few seconds if we took the correct ones or not.

What pre-match preparation do you do before a game? Some referees watch videos of the teams they are due to referee and learn about the players who are likely to be playing, is this the sort of thing you would do?
I watch videos from both teams, tactical preparation so when I arrive at the stadium, I know everything about the teams.

How do you mentally prepare yourself before a game and what do you do differently, if anything, if you are visiting a stadium, you had a particularly rough time at the last time you visited?
Mental preparation is crucial, teamwork, we need to be prepared always for unexpected things.

Do you watch the DVD of a game you have officiated in to see what you have done well and what you think may need improving upon or do you use another form of self- assessment?
I always re-watch my matches, self-analysis is the easiest way to learn, although it is very difficult sometimes to be objective with yourself, this is human nature…

Have you ever been recognised in the street/supermarket etc. by a football fan? If so, what sort of reaction do you tend to get e.g. are you asked for an autograph, have a pleasant chat about football, get abused or what?
When I was recognised on the street or supermarket, it is usually positive reactions, but sometimes also negative ones as well. I try to avoid problems and also aggressive people.

When timing a game how do you use both watches?
I use 2 watches, one for time keeping and one for the GLT

How do you deal with the regular abuse from hundreds and even thousands of supporters? It must be tough to stay focused when you’re being chanted at/heckled by so many supporters?
Football is not good without supporters, I have missed them during the last one and a half years. I like the atmosphere during the matches, so I don’t mind if they are against my decisions.

What is your opinion on video assisted referee (VAR)?
To introduce VAR in my opinion was a very good decision, we all know that the decisions will never be perfect, but with this tool we can eliminate the clear and evident big mistakes.

The refereeing path to the top is long and difficult for any referee. You have grown up as an ethnic Hungarian in Romania and whilst things have vastly improved since the communist years has your ethnicity made it any more difficult for you in becoming accepted? How does the Federation, and you, deal with the lingering xenophobia that sadly still exists?
I never felt that I was treated differently because of my origins, when I had difficulties with the supporters the Romanian Football Federation reacted immediately and took sanctions against the troublemakers. But they were only a small group.

What are you hopes/aims for the future? You have potentially 3 world cups and 3 Euros you could be chosen to officiate at, before you reach the stage of going into +1 years at FIFA level. You had your first taste at a major tournament this summer and performed very well in your group stage match. What have you been able to take away from the tournament in terms of your own development in the coming years?
Thank you for your appreciation, one of my dreams came true by attending the Euro 2020. I would like to go also for the World Cup and for one Olympic game when it will be possible. I’ll prepare myself for this.

Can you give us an insight as to the preparation and training for referees in both the lead up to tournaments and during them? I know a lot of people seem to think you sit around the pool sunning yourselves in between games and perhaps don’t appreciate the high level of hard work, preparation and training that goes into it.
At Euro 2020 everything was organised at the highest level possible, thanks to the people, the UEFA staff, who are responsible for the logistics.

We have worked hard during the previous months before the tournament with online theoretical sessions, analysing hundreds of video clips and also, we were in Nyon one month before the tournament for the physical fitness test and theoretical sessions.

On 7th July we arrived in our basecamp in Istanbul, then we had 2-3 days before the start of the Championship to refresh ourselves again with the guidelines from the UEFA ref department.

We had separate training programs according to who had a match on which date, also a big responsibility of the coaches who did a great job, because nobody got injured. For example, 3 days before matchday – the referees did a HI training session, then the next day it was agility and coordination.

The day before match day is traveling to the venue, the flights were very early in the morning just in order to arrive there around 12pm, after landing travelling to the accommodation and in the afternoon from 1600 a pre-match training session, not intensive just 35-40 min. Then dinner together with the observer and the referee team. Then it is match day. The day after the match we travelled back to the base camp in Istanbul, where we had a meeting with the refereeing officers and we did the match analysis.

This was every referee’s routine during the whole tournament. Those who were not appointed to matches remained in Istanbul and had training sessions together with the 4 coaches.

I wonder how many supporters will be surprised to realise that a singular appointment at these major tournaments is in effect a 5 day event for the referees, with the pre-match preparation and training starting 3 days before the match, and ending the day after the match with the post-match analysis.

Thank you very much to István for his time, his willingness to answer so many questions and his openness when doing so. I have to say what a lovely, pleasant, and charming young man he is and such a lovely big smile. It was a pleasure to spend the time chatting with him. Very best wishes for the future István.