The OFC Champions League Qualifier is a gateway to the region’s premier international club competition, but there are more than just football careers developing at Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Nuku’alofa, Tonga this week.

American Samoa-based OFC accredited assistant referee Sione Mau is hoping to further his chances of becoming a FIFA Assistant Referee through his inclusion as a match official for the tournament and by taking part in the Match Officials Workshop associated with it.

“I’ve been to this kind of tournament as a player and as a coach but never as a referee,” he said.

“I’ve experienced a lot already while I’ve been here in Tonga. I’ve learnt what I need to do before refereeing a game, all the match preparation, and all the fitness you have to do before refereeing a game.

“It’s really hard but I’m really excited that I get to experience this before another tournament in the future. The next tournament, I’ll be ready for it,” he added.

Preparing for matches with the seven FIFA officials has opened Mau’s eyes to the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done at the elite level.

“You’ve got to stay fit. Fitness is a must as a referee, especially at this level. Now that I’m here I’ve experienced it and fitness is a must.”

OFC Head of Refereeing Kevin Stoltenkamp believes the OFC Champions League Qualifier has been an invaluable experience for Mau in his journey to becoming a FIFA badge-toting official.

“The competition has been used as a platform to give Mau a taste of what is required to be an elite official,” he said.

“Mau has joined the seven FIFA officials in daily lectures, daily 6am fitness sessions, a fitness test, proper nutrition, pre-match preparation and recovery the next day,” he said.

Mau has already been involved on the side-line, acting as the fifth official in the opening match of the competition between American Samoa’s Utulei Youth FC and Samoa’s Lupe Ole Soaga on 28 January.

“He spent the day before with the match officials in preparation for the opening game, was part of the match officials’ morning briefing, accompanied them to the match and participated in their match inspection and preparation,” Stoltenkamp said.

Although he’s more than eager to step on to the field as a match official in Tuesday and Friday’s matches, Mau is grateful for the experience he’s had so far and proud of the progress he has made as a referee.

“I’m really proud of myself. My family and my co-workers back home send me emails saying ‘good luck’ and it’s really good even though I haven’t fully participated in a match yet,” he said.

“The experience has been really good so far.”

Mau and New Zealand OFC accredited official Isaac Trevis will continue to learn from their peers for the remainder of the competition, and with the progress made so far, Mau is confident of making it to the top one day.

“I’ve always aimed to be in a FIFA World Cup one day and dreams do come true if we work hard,” he said.

“That’s my aim, representing OFC and my country in a world cup. This is just the beginning of my journey.”