Behind the Dutch refereeing success at Euro 2020

We spoke with Jan ter Harmsel, best known in the refereing world as “Dutch Referee” to ask him about his impressions after Bjorn Kuipers has been appointed to oversee the Euro 2020 final.

Jan is an experienced journalist and referee observer who, for the past couple of years, has been running the world-famous “Dutch Referee Blog” where he shares stories, tips and advice for referees all around the world. He has also attended a number of our international tournaments as a referee observer, in particular the IberCup Cascais in Portugal (read his take on the tournament, here).

Hello Jan, what a great success story for Dutch refereeing to see Bjorn Kuipers appointed to the Euro 2020 final What have been the key factors in helping bring refereeing in Netherlands to such levels of success as seen at these Euros? 

They put a lot of dedication into their refereing to become better every game. Björn Kuipers had a clear goal in mind: he wanted to reach the final of a big tournament like the European Championships. When he was sent home after the quarter finals of the last tournament his first reaction was disappointment that he didn’t reach further, eventhough getting a QF appointment at a EC is something everyone would be proud of.

KNVB also tries to put forward this idea of improving and self-development into their refereeing education. Referees need to be aware that they have an important role in becoming a better referee. It’s about taking responsibility of your own career. And not everyone can reach the top, but you dedicate a lot of time and effort in it. As referee instructor in The Netherlands I noticed that change as well. Initially lessons looked more like the expert (instructor) telling what is good and what not. Nowadays, upcoming referees will be more challenged to think, discuss, learn – and most importantly: become a better referee.

Another key factor in the success of Dutch refereeing at the Euros is their team work. Everyone here speaks of Team Kuipers or Team Makkelie. Both referees see their team as crucial factor in their success. Björn Kuipers’ ARs Sander van Roekel (since 2008) and Erwin Zeinstra (since 2011) have been with him for a very long time. They keep each other focused and have the same goals in mind.

As for Makkelie we all know he recently changed one of his assistants, just a few months before the Euros. He said in the media that it was a big and difficult decision to make, after working together for years. His reaction in a KNVB video shows that he sees refereeing as top sport. “In the end we have a business relationship and you want to strive for the best.” This clearly shows how important it is for him to perform at his best.

Kuipers is such an evergreen, rarely an underpar performance. What do you think is his secret?

When I met them in their training camp before the 2016 Euro I’ve seen how they operate and prepare and analyse. He knows all the details of the teams he’ll officiate, he watches their games. Also interesting is to read how this video analyst helps them prepare in every detail. Kuipers checks team tactics, sees how they take free kicks or corner kicks. This attention to detail can make the difference when acting with so many top officials at a final tournament.

Secondly, he does not get stressed after a mistake. During the current Euro tournament he awarded a defensive free kick, but VAR asked him to do an on-field review. He changed his decision after seeing a foul on Koke from Spain. The rest of the game he remained focused and did what he normally does. He’s so experienced that it looks like it doesn’t influence him at all. A similar thing happened in during the World Cup with Neymar. A big football star, but Kuipers had the guts to change his original penalty decision. He is not influenced by the fact it’s a world class player.

Makkelie had the opening game and a semi-final. A bright future seems in store for Danny. How do you evaluate him both at home and at Euro 2020?

Danny Makkelie is for sure the future number 1 referee in The Netherlands. He gained a lot of trust during previous years with development of VAR in Europe and went in that role to the World Cup in Russia. But now he is also present as referee at a final tournament. In my opinion, during the opening game he has set a good line of how handballs should be judged. I hope this will be the guideline for all refs and competitions, as we went almost to a situation in 2020-2021 where every touch of ball on the hand was punished with a PK.

My compatriot can also be very proud of the appointments given, and of his performance in them, with also a semi-final in his debut at this level. If I look at that game itself until the penalty incident: he did well, maybe he could have dealt earlier with some of the dissent, that’s the only minor development point. In terms of the awared penalty kick: many people called it a soft one and it got a lot of media attention. I think the non-intervention by VAR was in line with what we’ve seen during the whole tournament. Penalty kicks awarded by Mateu Lahoz and Turpin neither leaded to an intervention. It seems this is how Uefa’s referee chief Roberto Rosetti and Head of VAR Carlos Velasco Carballo like to see it. If they didn’t agree with that call by VAR, who was Pol van Boekel, we wouldn’t have seem him appointed for the final.

It’s been great to see the general public in the Netherlands get behind Dutch officials since the team’s exit, something we’d never see in a number of other European countries. How are referees generally perceived and treated at local and national level? Is there generally greater respect towards them? 

The Dutch referees are usually quite open to the media and often available for interviews and stories. That helps a lot. Dutch media now also mention big appointments by our football referees in their news articles. There is still discussion about VAR and decisions, I think that will not change. Everyone can moan about the video referee or use of technology, but when there is none like in Makkelie’s game Portugal – Serbia the same people moan about the fact there is none. That’s apparently the world of football and its fans that we have to deal with as referees.

Our Dutch team wasn’t that good this tournament, to put it mildly. Maybe these appointments give Dutch people finally an opportunity to be proud during this tournament. This hopefully leads to more people interested in a referee course. But for the moment I’d also say: lets enjoy this happy days for Dutch referees, as we all know the atmosphere can change quickly in the football world.

Thank you Jan, we all looking forward to seeing Kuipers in action. We’re sure he will do a great job and make the Netherlands and the entire refereeing community proud. And of course we look forward to seeing you again at one of our tournaments, when the situation allows. If you are a referee and an observer, and would like to take part, feel free to contact us for any information. GO TEAM KUIPERS!