Top Angolan referee Hélder Martins de Carvalho is marking a special milestone this year having spent a decade officiating at the COSAFA Cup tournament.
The experienced De Carvalho is viewed as one of the leading match officials from the COSAFA region and in a career that was at one stage threatened by injury, has proven to be a consistent and excellent referee.
He made his first appearance at the COSAFA Cup in 2008, and just a year later was officiating the 2009 final between Zimbabwe and Zambia in Harare, proof of his rapid rise and the esteem in which he was held by COSAFA Referees Manager Felix Tangawarima, who is now also a member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Referees Committee and a FIFA Referees Instructor.
“I actually identified him in 2007, he was doing a local game in Angola and nobody knew him,” Tangawarima said. “We brought him to his first COSAFA Cup tournament in Mauritius in 2008 and when we saw there was potential in him, I lobbied that he would go to Under-17 of CAF in 2009. That was the beginning of him, he started moving up.
“He is a very determined referee, he puts everything into what he is doing and he later went to the African Cup of Nations in 2010 in Angola.
“We are proud of what he has done. He is an advertisement for our ‘product’ as COSAFA, showing how we can help CAF to develop quality referees for the continent.”
De Carvalho cuts a calm figure in the middle and has already officiated in two matches at the 2018 COSAFA Cup – the 1-0 victory for Mauritius over Malawi in the pool stages, and the 1-1 draw between Zimbabwe and Botswana in the quarterfinals.
“I was given the 2009 COSAFA Cup final, which was quite a surprise as I was a young referee, but it was a great experience for me,” Martinssaid.
No-one knew me, I was very young at that time. I think people were a little bit scared about how I would perform. Me also, I was very, very scared, it was a big challenge. But it went well and it remains probably my best memory as a referee.
“The following year there was the African Under-17 Championships and I did the final of that as well. After that I was promoted for the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico, two matches. I have moved up from there.”
But a crippling injury that kept him away from the whistle for two-and-a-half years threatened to end his career just as it was getting going.
“In life you have big ups and down. I had to have a big surgery and I stopped refereeing for two-and-a-half years. After that I had to start again from the bottom and work my way up.
“I had to work very hard to raise my performance back to where it was, but I was given a lot of support by the COSAFA referees committee that helped me get back to the right level.”
His start in refereeing is not unusual, he first dreamed of becoming a professional player, but when it was clear that would not be possible, he switched to officiating.
“I used to be a player, but I was not very successful, so I changed to refereeing. I had a cousin, who was like a brother to me, who was on the FIFA panel and I used to go to games to watch him, that made me start to love refereeing.
“He then called me to be his assistant referee and I started with that, I cannot remember the exact year but I think around 1996 or 1997. I was an assistant for three years, before I became a referee. It is an honour for me, I feel very proud to be a COSAFA referee.”
De Carvalho is naturally hoping to be in the middle for the 2018 COSAFA Cup final, but adds he will support whoever gets the opportunity.
“We work very hard to get that [a final], but we have to show through our performance on the field that we deserve that. The referees committee evaluates us and they will choose the one that is best prepared.
“Of course I would like to, I am working very hard to try and be there, but if not I am also happy to have featured in the 2018 COSAFA Cup already.”
De Carvalho believes that referees from the COSAFA region are among the best on the continent, as evidenced by Zambian Janny Sikazwe having been selected to go to the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“COSAFA is doing a great job developing new referees. Every year we see new talents in the Under-17 and Under-20 tournaments, and also we have three or four new referees in the seniors.
“The results is what you can see, we had a COSAFA team [led by Sikazwe] doing the FIFA Club World Cup final, you had a COSAFA team doing the 2017 African Cup of Nations final and now we have a team going from COSAFA to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“That shows the job has been done very well by the COSAFA referees commission and that should make us all very proud.
“I believe COSAFA is producing the best referees on the continent. We know the other referees from other regions as we see them at major tournaments. But in terms of quality and quantity of referees, COSAFA is doing a great job and better than other regions.”
De Carvalho says it has been no easy road though and aside from his injury, he has also been made to choose between refereeing and his day job.
“I had a lot of problems. I used to work in a bank, but after seven years my CEO asked me to choose between refereeing and the job. I gave him my response, I resigned from the contract.
“I stayed for one year without a job and then I got another one in an insurance company and worked there for nine years. I rose to manager of their car insurance department and I began to have the same issues because I had to be there to manage the problems.
“At the same time I had to fly away for matches. For the second time I was told I had to decide and you know what I decided because I am still refereeing!
“After that I decided I had to open my own company, a small one, also in insurance and it is going well. I can now manage and leave my colleagues there and can go all over Africa to do what is my passion, refereeing.
“It is the passion I have for being a referee – being in the middle and dealing with the players, the atmosphere, the feat, the anxiety, I love that. Being in an office, sitting in front of a computer, it is like you are not living.”
De Carvalho has also backed the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to help referees make the right decision.
“Technology is great, the point is we can minimize the mistakes. If you have that help from the technology it is good. It is good for the fair play,” he said.