Shooting the Breeze with Matthew
He may be suitably stern and serious when he's officiating in the middle, but Australia's top referee Matthew Breeze shows a more flamboyant side when he takes part in those occasional matches where whistleblowers get a chance to become players.
Sitting just behind the strikers, Breeze fancies himself as a creative midfielder: ''Games involving referees are always deadly serious,'' he says. ''And I'm the most competitive person I know.''
But Breeze realised early on - at the age of 14 - that he was never going to make the big time as a player. That's when he made the life-changing decision to become a man in black.
Now Breeze heads the Australian contingent at June's Confederations Cup in South Africa with the hope of impressing the powers that be to get the nod for next year's FIFA World Cup finals.
After officiating at the 2005 Confederations Cup in Germany (including the third place play-off between Germany and Mexico), Breeze was selected on the shortlist of 44 candidates for the 2006 World Cup. But when that group was cut to 23 for the tournament itself, Breeze missed out. His countryman Mark Shield made it, becoming the fourth Aussie to control a match in the World Cup finals.
Shield had been long recognised as Australia's number-one match official but his premature retirement last year thrust Breeze into the spotlight. He took control of the 2009 Hyundai A-League Grand Final between Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United and was heavily criticised for his decision to send off Cristiano early in the game after the Adelaide striker clashed with Melbourne defender Rodrigo Vargas.
After jumping for the ball, Vargas was left with a heavy head wound from Cristiano's elbow. With Victory captain Kevin Muscat - along with the packed house at the Telstra Dome - demanding action, Breeze reached into his pocket for a red card.
In hindsight, it was a harsh decision, given that the elbow seemed accidental. The FFA review committee ruled that Cristiano should be exonerated from any ban.
''The day I stop learning from the good things I do on the field and the not so good things, is the day I'll give it away,'' Breeze says.
A public prosecutor for the New South Wales government by day, Breeze has become accustomed to other types of highly charged and emotional situations, with plenty at stake. But he admits that he's spending an increasing amount of time away from the office and courtroom because of his football commitments.
He's been known to visit schools and junior clubs to speak to young players about the idea of going over to 'the dark side'. ''If they're 16-years-old and just an average player, refereeing can offer them the chance of having a long and interesting career in football,'' he said.
At 6ft 3 ½ inches, Breeze is one of the tallest referees on the Asian - if not the world - scene; he towered above his fellow officiators at the recent AFC Congress as more than a dozen refs from around the region were called onto the stage as part of Asian Referees Year 2009.
And during a coffee break at the Congress at the swish Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur Breeze shot the breeze with ESPN Soccernet.
Q: Matthew, getting the chance to officiate at the Confederations Cup is a great achievement for you. What are you expecting?
A: I was at the last Confederations Cup in 2005 with two Australian assistant referees. This is part of the selection programme for the World Cup in 2010. It's a great opportunity for us to put our best foot forward and hopefully get selection at the big show.
Q: How would you say Australian referees are perceived in world football?
A: Over the last 10 years, Australian referees have done extremely well. Mark Shield had two World Cups and before him Eddie Lennie did very well at the 1998 World Cup. One of my goals is to continue on with that and really keep pushing to show that Australian referees are not only the best in Asia but up amongst the best in the world.
Q: How much of a correlation is there between the rise of Australian football playing-wise and the rise of Australian football in a refereeing sense?
A: It certainly can't hurt. Australia is still a small fish in terms of world football but the better we get in terms of our football standing, it can only help referees as well.
Q: Looking at your performances in the Hyundai A-League, how do you think that league is growing from a refereeing perspective?
A: It's not an easy league to referee in. It's quite physical. We introduced the Respect Programme last year, based along the FA's model and that's certainly helped. Overall it's an enjoyable league to referee in. The crowds are good and the standard's not too bad. It's a challenge every single week.
Q: How does your day job as a public prosecutor help in your refereeing?
A: I think it's important to focus on body language and also dealing with conflicts. The courtroom is often like a football field. There's a lot of emotional people and a lot of people who want to put their own opinions forward, so one of my jobs in court is to try and be the peacekeeper and it's the same on the football field.
Q: So some of the associated skills you can transfer across?
A: Yes, it's all about trust. I like to get people in the courtroom to trust me in what I'm saying as a prosecutor and on the field, as well. Players need to respect the referee so when he makes a decision they can move on with the game.
Q: We're heading into the Hyundai A-League's fifth season but there have been a few controversial decisions that stand out - the Joel Griffiths incident with the assistant referee plus the last three Grand Finals. How do you look back on those?
A: It's all a learning experience. It's about anything in life. You live and learn. I've been refereeing for a long time and the day I stop learning from the good things I do on the field and the not so good things, is the day I'll give it away. It becomes part of what I am as a referee and I learn from it and I move on to hopefully bigger and better things.
Q: What's your view on the debate about the increased use of technology when it comes to refereeing decisions?
A: My view is a little bit different to a lot of other referees. I'm not dead against it, to be honest, especially in Australia, where the football landscape is based upon video technology and a number of match officials involved. Football stands out as opposed to Rugby League, Rugby Union or AFL as they don't seem to have as many sharp calls and game-changing decisions to make. At the moment, it's not part of the laws of the game, but if it were to be, I'd embrace it fully.
Q: Looking ahead to the Confederations Cup, what's in prospect? It opens on June 14 with South Africa against Iraq, do you know yet whom you'll be refereeing?
A: We don't know yet. We usually don't find out until a couple of days before the games about our appointments. There are some good match-ups and some good teams so hopefully I can be on the field with some of the big countries in world football and really show what I'm capable of.
Q: Who's your role model when it comes to refereeing in the world?
A: What I like to do is look at referees - not only in football but in other sports as well - and take little bits and pieces of what I can. I've always liked the calmness of someone like Eddie Lennie. There are also a lot of other referees who are technically very good as well. As a referee, you've got your own personality and your own style but it's always good to look around and see what else you can take on board.
Australian-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.