Nzolo, the smiling referee

By Alexis Billebault

Posted on Monday, 5 July 2010 10:53

Jérôme Efong Nzolo is today considered one of Belgium’s greatest referees. And yet this 35-year-old from Gabon has to make do with watching the World Cup on television. His extraordinary story.

Jérôme Efong Nzolo, who refereed the Slovakia-San Marino match (7-0) for the South African World Cup qualifiers on 6 June 2009, is one of Belgium’s best ‘refs’. But because of UEFA’s referee-classification system, he won’t be representing his country in South Africa. “I belong to category three,” he explains, “but to have a hope of being ?accepted for the World Cup you must be in the top-class category. So it’s actually completely logical that Franck de Bleeckere was the ?Belgian selected for the World Cup.”?

Sadly, due to the system of continental rotation, Nzolo will probably never have a chance to referee the tournament’s final stage in Africa again. “When the World Cup comes round to Africa again, I will have long ?stopped refereeing,” he says.

“I’m 35 and I only have a maximum of 10 years of refereeing left. The first World Cup on African soil came too soon for me.” ?

This summer he’ll be following the matches on television, from Belgium and Bitam in Gabon, where a large part of his family still live. Born in the Bikondome district and now a naturalised Belgian, Nzolo may yet have the chance to referee in Africa. “If I have to return to the continent to referee matches, it could only be for the final phase of the African Cup of Nations, and that’s on the condition that the Confederation of African Football ask for UEFA referees, as happened before,” he says.?

The ‘black Collina’?

Before leaving for Charleroi in 1995, Nzolo worked in the Gabonese first division and even refereed the Coupe du Gabon in front of 40,000 spectators. “I started at the age of 14 after an injury which meant I could no longer play football,” he recalls.?

Having originally come to Belgium to pursue training as an electrician, Nzolo continued to feed his passion for refereeing, starting with the lower divisions of the Jupiter league. On 28 January 2006, the day of the FC Brussels-Lokeren match, Nzolo became the first black referee in history to officiate a Belgian first-division match. He continued to progress in the hard-to-crack world of game arbitration and was nominated as best Belgian referee by the players themselves three times, in 2007, 2008 and 2009.?

“In July 2008, I refereed my first match in Cyprus, a preliminary round meeting of the Champions League between Anorthosis Famagusta and Pyunik Yerevan Armenia,” says Jérome, nicknamed the “Black Collina”*.”I haven’t got the look of the former Italian ?referee though,” he quips. “He could make players back down from three metres.”?

In Belgium his reputation is sealed. Nzolo is a communicative person who likes to explain his decisions to the players, preferably with a smile. “When I ?arrived in Europe, I understood that refereeing isn’t the same everywhere, even though the laws are the same,” he says. But I think talking is very important. “Referees are part of the game in the same way as the players. With my cheerful attitude, I try to build good relations with them. Sometimes a smile can help to diffuse stress and tension during a match.”

Nzolo says that football is ?”nothing compared with everyday social dramas”. He has a keen social awareness and is concerned about giving refereeing a better image in the eyes of the public, especially amongst young people. “I take part in seminars and conferences to better explain the referee’s role. Professional referees are protected today, but I’m terrified by certain encounters I witness in the youth and amateur categories. The behaviour of parents is scary sometimes. People have to understand that the referee is a man, and a man can make mistakes. Today it’s hard to find young referees; they don’t really want to go and get insulted, threatened and knocked about on their Sunday. But for me personally, refereeing has helped me to forge my character.”?

Excellent African refs

Nzolo is happy to provide advice on the subject of refereeing. “You should progress and know how to accept criticism, as long as it’s ?addressed to the referee and not ?personal,” he says.

He is astonished by the aspersions sometimes cast on his African counterparts. “There are people who think that they are sometimes out of their depth during international competitions because they are from countries where the championships are not well recognised,” he says. “But there have been, and there are, some excellent African referees who officiate all year round in championships but are hardly known: for example, Jean-Fidèle Diramba from Gabon and Eddy Maillet from the Seychelles. In Europe, Lubos Michel is Slovakian and Slovakia doesn’t referee the best championship on the continent.

“There is certainly progress to be made in terms of refereeing in ?Africa, but that is the case every-where. We should always think about ?improving.” ??

*The Italian Pierluigi Collina was considered one of the best referees in the world. He retired in 2005.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s World Cup 2010 special edition in May.

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