Björn Kuipers awaits his seventh European competition final – but don't assume that the Dutch referee is treating Sunday's UEFA EURO 2020 encounter between Italy and England at Wembley as simply one more assignment.
The refereeing visiting card presented by Björn Kuipers, a 48-year-old supermarket owner from Oldenzaal in the eastern Netherlands, is as impressive as a match official could wish for. A UEFA Champions League final in 2014; two UEFA Europa League finals in 2013 and 2018; a UEFA Super Cup match in 2011; and European Under-21 and U17 finals in 2009 and 2006 respectively.
By the way, don't forget his selection for the referee teams at EUROs 2012 and 2016 and the FIFA World Cups in 2014 and 2018. However, Kuipers says that this latest call-up to handle the biggest game in European national team football has left him as excited as ever.
"I was very emotional when I heard that I'd been given this final," he told UEFA.com. "I hoped to get the chance to referee a EURO final, and I've worked hard with my team to achieve this. It's really a milestone, a dream, an unbelievable moment and a big honour."
Kuipers has enjoyed his EURO, taking charge of two group stage matches – Belgium's narrow win over Denmark in Copenhagen, and Spain's convincing success over Slovakia in Seville – as well as the tightly-fought Baku quarter-final between Denmark and Czech Republic. He also acted as fourth official in England's opening group stage victory over Croatia at Wembley. "The EURO has been fantastic," he reflects. "I think the level of refereeing has been very high. There's been a family feeling among us – referees, the UEFA staff, the fitness coaches. Everybody has helped to make this EURO a positive experience."
Sometimes, a simple remark or incident can be the catalyst for a change of direction in life. In Kuipers' case, he was 16 when his father Jan set a new course for him. "I played football as a youngster, and I wasn't the nicest of guys to the referees," he recalls. "My father was a referee – he told me: 'If you know it all better, then take a refereeing course and do it yourself. So I did, and it started from there. I'm eternally grateful for what he said to me."
A new career pathway lay ahead – but Kuipers admits that he never began refereeing with the objective of aiming for the stars. "I realised when I started that I really liked refereeing, but initially I never had goals. It was a case of step by step, wait and see. What helped me was that I had the right people to guide me along the way." He eventually earned his international badge in 2006. "I began to change my way of thinking and really set myself clear targets when I was fortunate enough to be promoted to the elite level."
Since those days, Kuipers has never looked back. As one of Europe's most respected match officials, he has learned to deal with the myriad highs and lows of a referee's life. "You need to be mentally and physically fit, and enjoy what you do, otherwise there's no point in being a referee," he says. "The ability to manage people is vitally important, as well as having an understanding of football. If you can win the trust of players and spectators, it makes your job a lot easier."
Kuipers will be accompanied at Sunday's final by a tried and trusted team – Dutch assistants Sander van Roekel and Erwin Zeinstra, and Carlos Del Cerro Grande (Spain) as fourth official. Bastian Dankert (Germany) takes on the video assistant referee (VAR) role alongside Pol van Boekel (Netherlands), Christian Gittelmann and Marco Fritz (both Germany). Juan Carlos Yuste Jiménez (Spain) completes the line-up as assistant reserve referee.
After being based with the rest of the EURO referees in Istanbul since the start of the tournament, their arrival in London earlier this week has given Kuipers and his team the opportunity to acclimatise as the competition reaches its climax. "We watched the two semi-finals, and the atmosphere at Wembley was incredible – so we're really looking forward to the final now," he says. "It's been good to have this additional time to focus on the match."
Concentration and teamwork
When will the moment arrive when Kuipers is fully aware that a huge occasion lies ahead? "First of all, when we go out and warm up on the pitch, and the crowd is starting to grow and everyone is excited," he says. "But I think I'll really realise when I lead the teams out, past the trophy, and line up for the national anthems.
"At that moment, I'll think about all the people who have helped me get to here, and my family in particular." Kuipers' pride at that instant will be shared by his biggest supporters, wife Marlies and his two children, who will be at Wembley for the final. "I can't emphasise enough how important they've been to me," he says. "They've been there for me and supported me not only when things have been going well, but also when I've had difficult times.”
With Kuipers following in father Jan's footsteps as a referee, the job certainly runs in the family – and Marlies herself was already in a position to know about a referee's life with some clarity. Her grandfather Andries van Leeuwen was a top match official, who took charge of the 1963 European Cup Winners' Cup final between Tottenham Hotspur and Atlético de Madrid in Rotterdam. "I heard a lot about him," says Kuipers. "He lived 100 per cent for refereeing."
Once he blows the whistle to get the action underway on Wembley’s lush turf, the thoughts of Kuipers and his team will immediately turn to producing a performance to match the occasion. “Full focus, full concentration from the first whistle to the last,” he explains. “That’s hugely important – you can have a good match for 90 minutes and take all the right decisions, and then something happens right at the very end that can spoil all of your good work. Teamwork will be crucial, and I feel reassured to have team-mates that I can trust totally with me.”
Focus on the future
At this stage on his refereeing journey, with such a complete list of big matches on his CV, is there anything left for Kuipers to achieve? “Let me think about that after the EURO,” he says, laughing as he reflects on a refereeing life that has been well worth living. “We’ve seen it all – we’ve travelled across Europe and around the world, we’ve refereed great matches with great players and great coaches. It’s a dream to be a referee – it’s a dream to be refereeing a EURO final. I’ll look after the EURO about what comes next as far as refereeing is concerned.”
In addition to his hectic business life, Kuipers – a keen tennis player and mountain biker in his spare time – definitely hopes to be able to give back to refereeing by imparting his vast knowledge not only to younger referees, but also to football-mad youngsters who may consider that being a referee is a better prospect than playing. “If anyone wants my help, I’m there to give my knowledge to them. And if a young girl or boy ever asks for advice about how to become a referee, I’d certainly encourage them to have a try.”
“The job of a referee is a fantastic one. You learn to take decisions, you develop, it makes you a better person. If you want to be a referee, take that chance…”