Mehdi Difallah: between sacrifices and successes

Mehdi Difallah, gives us his first interview. This rising referee, voted Jeep Elite’s best referee in 2018, experienced his first Final Four Euroleague last season. Discreet and hard-worker, he confirms his place on the international scene. Encounter.

Hello Mehdi,
We thank you for answering our questions and especially for the pleasure of giving us your first interview. So, to begin with, we ask you this simple question: how did you become a referee?

I started playing basketball at the age of 11 after five years in football. A few years later, I broke both wrists when I fell in basketball. Immobilization was not enough and the operation was inevitable. A friend, who had just become a departmental referee, advised me to take an refereeing course. It wasn’t an objective at all, but I took the challenge out of curiosity.

I became a departmental referee in 2003 at the age of 19. At the end of the season, I went up to the regional level. In December 2004, I took part in the East Zone detection course, managed at the time by Freddy Lepercq and Francis Muller. At the end of this internship, I am selected to join NM3 and the ‘Level Internships’. That same year, I participated in the ‘Level 1’ and my placement at this stage allows me to be on the list of NM2 referees at the end of the season. The 2005-2006 season takes place abroad for me as my studies push me to live 1 year in London where I continue to referee (National and University Leagues). Refereeing in England is a unique human experience. I am returning to France this year to pass the Level 2 and 3 courses. At the end of this season, I am joining the NM1 referees group. After 1 year of NM1, I am selected to ride in Prob where I evolve for 4 years. At the end of the 2010-2011 season, my ranking allows me to join the ProA. During my 3rd season of Proa in 2014, I validate the international exam in Mannheim. For 3 years, I discovered the European cups but also the U17 and U19 World Championships. In 2017, I am contacted by the Euroleague and I accept the invitation.

This is a very fast evolution that takes you to the top level in four years. What was the “secret” of your rapid ascent?

I have absolutely no secrets. It just takes a lot of perseverance, self-denial, hard work, but also a huge “luck factor”. You have to know basketball and develop communication skills that are essential for us on the courts. I also think that my job as an English teacher helped me a lot, not only to validate the various exams related to the international competition but also on the field with foreign players.

So it was a regular job that allowed you to move quickly. However, which tool and technique do you use the most to work on your weak points and thus progress in your arbitration technique?

You can read a lot of articles about arbitration on the internet and/or social networks but the most important thing is to watch the videos of your own matches. We know the adage “The Devil is in the details”. It is essential to observe and analyze the things to be kept and those to be corrected immediately. Second, it is our ability to change as quickly as possible that will make a difference and allow us to move forward. In addition, we also have to watch videos from other matches in order to observe colleagues. The objective is not to copy but to draw inspiration from what somer referees do in the field.

“The devil is in the details”, is a saying we love very much. You are a referee who works hard, you are demanding of yourself. Today, what are your future goals?

Become the best ‘version’ of myself by continuing to work and eliminating my weaknesses as I go, even if there is no perfection.

Now let’s talk about your Euroleague adventure. Become a Euroleague referee and officiating – after two seasons on this championship – a Final Four, did you ever think you’d get to that level?

Starting refereeing in 2003, the Euroleague was extremely far from my goals. When I arrived in ProA, I admit that I thought about it quite regularly even though I didn’t talk to anyone about it. That said, I never thought I would be designated on this F4, especially after 2 seasons. However, it is absolutely not an end in itself. I have a lot more to prove. I don’t live in the past.

It’s not an end in itself, but getting to that level so quickly is a very nice performance. A pride as well. All this suggests a real labor force, of questioning for quickly high its level. How did you manage to adapt quickly to this competition?

I mentioned the “luck factor” a little higher. I think I was lucky enough to have games and crews that allowed me to express myself and show how quickly I could fit in and adapt to this competition. But that’s not all, I have the chance to work with “recognized” people in this championship. I worked a lot with Eddie Viator who was able to guide me and advise me from the moment I joined this league. In my first year, I was fortunate to be mentored by Damir Javor (Slovenian referee – one of the best European referees). In my second year, Todd Warnick was my coach. Todd and I had known each other for many years through summer competitions. When people get along well, these relationships between young referees, mentors and coaches – professionally established by the hierarchy – do not stop. We therefore continue to work together, to call each other regularly to talk about our games and to share our opinions on video situations. I love working with them. They bring a lot to me.

The Euroleague is a very technical championship, how did you apprehend the differences between the Jeep Elite and the Euroleague?

The Euroleague is much stronger, which results in fewer whistles, much clearer situations and contacts to judge, in general. The relationship between players, coaches and referees is not the same either. It is a very professional world, very supervised, led by the high authorities of European basketball. I do not have any questions about the comparison between the two championships, I am content to arbitrate as best as possible by being aware of the differences in tactics, techniques, rules and arbitration mechanics. The Euroleague is the most professional and the most demanding competition that I know. 

You’re talking about tactical differences, technical differences, rules and refereeing mechanics in Euroleague. What did the Euroleague bring to your refereeing and your vision of the game?

Things are moving faster in the Euroleague. Once our eyes get used to this speed, we discover a new basketball, a new way of apprehending contacts and directing games. This also allows for a better selection of whistle shots. Just like players, it is essential to keep pace. When we officiate 1 or 2 matches on weekdays and 1 on weekends, we make enormous progress and our refereeing can only evolve. Moreover, with the video analysis of each game, it is easy to see what needs to be changed in our refereeing.

The Euroleague is very formative and you have quickly revealed yourself in this competition. Last season, after two seasons in Euroleague, you are called to officer on the Final Four. A consecration that many will never experience. How did you apprehend this first experience? How did you prepare for this deadline?

I told myself that we had to prepare as for any other match, that is, by analyzing the teams in attendance and preparing myself physically. We have a platform that allows us to view and/or download all of the current season’s games. It was necessary to ‘scout’ the teams as we do before each match.

On this event, the biggest challenge is being yourself. We were selected for our performances during the season and playoffs (quarterfinals), why change now? It’s mental work to do on yourself, managing stress, emotions… Actors are usually very focused on their objectives so they are not a problem. They also know that a penalty can have serious consequences for the outcome. They all came to win. The most difficult game to referee is the one for 3rd place. Teams lost on Friday so don’t want to be on the field on Sunday.

Quickly, can you unveil the backstage of a Final Four for the arbitrators summoned?

We met the day before the competition began. In the evening, we shared our scouting work on the 4 teams. Our boss, Richard Stokes, then gave us his technical instructions and expectations regarding our refereeing. At the end of this technical meeting, he gave us the designations for the semi-finals. 

You are starting your third season in Euroleague. What is your goal for this year?

My only goal is to make progress again and again. The rest we can’t control. I like to focus on the things I can control.

We wish you the best for the future, we know that you prefer to work in the shadows and that you will reach new heights very soon.
We are interested in one subject: your vision of refereeing and the referee. What makes a good referee for you?

There is no “type” definition but I would say a good referee is an “accessible”, professional, neutral, impartial person who is on the field to help players play basketball by enforcing rules, by guiding them. He certainly has a power and a duty to make decisions, but he does not misuse them. A good referee must be courageous and must sanction any deviant and disrespectful behaviour. A good referee also knows the rules. A good referee is recognized and often only needs a look, a smile, a gesture, a word to dispel any confrontation. A good referee knows how to work with colleagues on and off the field. He doesn’t evolve alone and needs to pull his team up. Finally, a good referee makes very few errors in judgment. 

To referee is:

  • Help players and coaches evolve according to the rules,
  • Direct the game, select what to whistle and what doesn’t deserve a game stop,
  • Managing his team, coaches, benches, field players, stopwatches, the speaker,
  • Respect and enforce the rules,

To referee is also to make considerable sacrifices on one’s personal life. 

What did the refereeing personally bring you?

refereeing has brought me a lot about human nature, about decision-making (instant), about communication in general, about how to manage conflicts. Even though life and terrain are two different things, there are a lot of similarities about how you can manage people and manage your team. It’s a daily challenge. 

Ref’mate is growing and has established itself in the smartphones of thousands of referees. What do you think of our initiative?

This is indeed very useful because, like what NBRA does in the United States (NBA Referees Association), there is a great misunderstanding between the public and the referees. I think we should look at what they’re doing across the Atlantic, even though we don’t have the same budgets. We must demystify everything we hear about the role of the referee, which is all too often misunderstood. In this way, the public will be able to discover our role in a completely different way and understand how we are formed, what the hierarchy asks us to do, how, why… For the moment, I find that we are suffering from a rather negative image. People don’t know what we’re going through. But we must be clear-sighted, some people don’t give a damn about all this and see in us only “scapegoats”. 

Thanks to Ref’mate for innovating by offering this fun tool that allows everyone to discover refereeing from a different angle.

Mehdi Difallah

Refereeing is an activity that requires a lot of sacrifice and work. It is fundamental to be able to surround yourself with good people who understand and support us. There is no doubt that the ups and downs will make us better referees but also better people. Despite all the sacrifices, refereeing remains the school of life and provides unparalleled happiness and sensations. 

We thank the Euroleague and Richard Stokes, Director of Officials,
for their support and support in the conduct of this interview.