Belgium - "I always carry Don Bosco with me on the field" – Nathan Verboomen

17 February 2023

(ANS – Bruxelles) – An exclusive interview with Nathan Verboomen, one of the world’s high rated FIFA referee, a passionate son of Don Bosco. He was interviewed for Don Bosco Magazine by Tim Bex, and here in this sharing he gives a glimpse about his past as a student, then as a teacher, his busy life as a referee and of course: his bond with Don Bosco. He continues to keep Don Bosco close to his heart, in everything he does.

You were not only a pupil at Don Bosco Haacht, you also taught there for ten years?

"That's right. As a child, it was a logical step for me to go to Don Bosco Haacht. My cousins were at Don Bosco, my brother followed and so it was normal for me to do the same. However, I only went there until the third secondary school. After that, I wanted to change the course and they didn't have that direction in Haacht. So I went to another school. A decision I still regret."

Why do you say it was a decision you regret?

"I always missed Don Bosco. In that other school - I'm not going to mention the name - nothing was allowed. During playtime, you had to stand still on a concrete playground and that's it. At Don Bosco you could play sports, games and romp around. As a student there, I even helped plant bushes around the football fields. Besides, you had the after-school sports, the field run, the mountain camp, you name it. So I missed Don Bosco. I actually didn't expect that because when I was still at Don Bosco Haacht, we sometimes talked about 'Don Prison'. A misjudgement because everyone who left wanted to return as soon as possible. So I experienced that myself. Even as a teacher, it never occurred to me to teach anywhere other than Don Bosco. I was very briefly working elsewhere to replace someone, but soon felt that I did not come into my own as much there."

So your 'mistake' as a student didn't make you again as a teacher?

"Indeed (laughs), but actually I was quite lucky to get started in Haacht. As a 15-year-old, I was already very fanatical about my hobby as a referee and it became pretty clear quickly that I could take progress in that line. So when I had to make a choice after secondary school regarding my further studies, I took this into account. I then became the Physical Education teacher, because that fitted in nicely with my 'job' as a referee. When I had only just graduated, the then director of Don Bosco Haacht asked me to come and referee a football match between pupils and teachers. At the subsequent reception, we got talking and one thing led to another: the following school year I was allowed to start teaching at Don Bosco Haacht."



Where did you stay for ten years if I'm not mistaken?

"That's right. The last two or three years, though, it was only half-time because my career as a referee was on the rise then. In 2017 I became a semi-pro,  which meant I had to train regularly during the day - and in 2019 I got my badge of international FIFA referee. This meant I had to train even more, travel a lot and even whistle tournaments across national borders. In other words, I realised that my job as a referee was no longer compatible with my job as a teacher. OK, my colleagues often jumped in and caught my absence, but you also have to be able to be honest: it couldn't last like this. I pulled the door of Don Bosco Haacht shut behind me and switched to a job as a sports nutrition representative. Now I can make my own schedule and plan everything much easier."

"Don Bosco's pedagogy has always inspired me"

But you are familiar with the whole Don Bosco thing, then?

"Of course! As a student you were already given the basics and as a teacher it has only grown and matured. I also took the 'Don Bosco and its heritage' course and even cycled from Haacht to Turin with some teachers. In other words, I have been immersed into the Don Bosco culture for much of my life. My grandmother had also good Salesian friends, so even as a little boy I got to know the Salesians and their pedagogy a bit. A style of education that has always inspired me. It taught me that not only teaching itself is important, but that the extracurricular, plays at least as big a role. At that other school, I never experienced anything like that. There, sisters lived and that was all you knew. Everything I experienced as a child at Don Bosco - from after-school sports to mountain camp - made me grow. As a teacher, you enjoy doing the same for your students because you realise how important your role is in the development of those youngsters. Don Bosco is a way of life, so to speak."

So that spirit has clearly stuck in you.

"Not just with me, mind you. You can see it in my brother too. As a youngster he was still allowed to go along to a kind of youth day of the congregation. I think that was in Rome. So Don Bosco has definitely stuck around. You know? During that cycling trip with the teachers of Don Bosco Haacht, I bought a whole stack of ballpoint pens in Turin. I still use those now as a referee."

You're not serious?

"Yet I do! Just watch it. On the pitch, I always have one pen in my breast pocket; the Don Bosco one. So when I draw a yellow or red card, I write it down with a Don Bosco pen. (laughs) My first one was one with Don Bosco's head on it, meanwhile I am already on another one. But that pen is always there. Superstition or rather habit? I don't know, but Don Bosco will always be there as a kind of 'guardian angel'."


So as a referee, do you try to be a bit of Don Bosco as well?

"That is difficult, because on a pitch you are facing players who want to win at all costs. You do want to create a bond of trust somehow, but you always have to be on your guard as a referee, during the match I mean. What footballers say is not necessarily right. Just think of a schwalbe where they ask for a penalty kick when they know well enough that it is not one. 22 footballers or 22 pupils? So it is something completely different. As a teacher, you are in front of a group of children you can talk to and want to walk the same path with. There you can also get emotionally involved. With football players it's a different story. There you have to keep your distance on an emotional level."

"22 footballers or 22 pupils? It's different, but there are similarities"

Are there also similarities between pupils and footballers?

"(Reflects) Yes, there are. For instance, at the beginning of the school year, you are a bit stricter and leave less room for discussion. Why? You have to protect yourself and raise your profile. You can always loosen the reins afterwards. But if you start the school year too lax... Try keeping your class in line. It's the same with football. You have to make it clear who you are and where the line is drawn. Besides, there is another big similarity: both a teacher and a referee must not fall out of their roles. Pupils sometimes push you to your limits; so do footballers. They will test you and try to draw you out. Until you make a mistake. You have to avoid that."


A referee is often immediately labelled 'bad'. Doesn't that frustrate you?

"It does, but football is not about the referee. The less you stand out, the better. It's a cliché, but it's true. People don't come for me, they come for the footballers. And rest assured that we referees also enjoy a nice game of football. But yes, the image of referees is indeed not so often positive. Thanks to the media who live on sensationalism. They know that a referee will never react and find it easy to create that battle between players and referees. I was once dismissed by a journalist as a 'mega-arrogant ref'. That was written big by my score in the paper. Then I think, 'I've never spoken to you... On what basis do you have the right to call me that?' If the media start doing that to every referee... well. A few weeks ago I got beer all over me during the warm-up, even before the match had to start. The referee is the enemy, surely? But you learn to deal with that. Fortunately, our job also has many positive sides which makes us happy to keep doing it."

There was a project in 2019 where the referees went to train with football clubs for a day. What was that like?

"I went to Charleroi at the time. That project served both to get to know each other and to explain certain game situations. Because make no mistake: although it's their job, there are still a lot of players who don't know the exact regulations. Such a day does help with that. But above all, that project was a pleasant moment to get to know each other better. You train together, eat together, talk to each other, and so on. You don't suddenly become best friends after that day, but the players do get to know the person behind 'the referee' and vice versa. When you meet on the pitch afterwards, it's different. You treat each other with more respect."

This story sounds recognisable: getting to know each other better out of hours ...

"Now that you mention it. (laughs) Getting to know each other outside school hours - in this case competition - does indeed create a bond. By doing things together outside 'compulsory time', you get to know the human side of each other and that only enhances the atmosphere in the classroom or on the field. So actually, this project was quite Salesian. We should integrate Don Bosco even more into our football league."

May be one of those exchanges with the supporters?

"(sigh) I'm not condoning actions like that beer-throwing, of course, but it's somewhere 'logical' that they are more likely to see you as the bogeyman because you make the wrong decision in their eyes. They support a certain club and see the match through different glasses. But quite honestly: I used to find it harder to whistle a youth match as a 15-year-old boy than I do now in front of a 20,000-strong stadium. Now you come in unnoticed, hear some shouting and whistling, but nothing more. Those twelve parents who used to stand along the sidelines and shout at you; that was much worse. You hear every word they shout at you; it's almost a one-on-one confrontation. (Reflects) A hard job? Maybe, but you learn to deal with that negativity as well as the pressure."

"Yes, my life is busy, but for my wife it is much busier"

Speaking of busy: is a healthy family life feasible for you with such a busy life?

"I'm away a lot and yes, extremely busy. But I'm usually in a fun and positive flow. You're asking me this now, but I think the question is less relevant to me. Is it feasible for Lotte, my wife? When I am away, she has to take care of our children alone and has to combine all those household chores with her job as a teacher. So for her it is often much harder than for me. That's what people don't see and don't ask about. On the contrary: when I am away, people ask her 'how Nathan is doing'. So I have enormous respect for Lotte and am grateful that she lets me do this."

Lotte is also a teacher, surely not in Don Bosco?

"Yet she is, also in Don Bosco Haacht. So you guessed it... We got to know each other there too. Meanwhile, we have two children and so it could well be that they will also go to Don Bosco. We both agree one hundred per cent with that style of education. But we'll see about that then."

Tim Bex concludes the interview with an interesting note: “Coincidence or not: while I was exchanging my latest football thoughts with Nathan, Lotte walks in. For a moment, the image of Mamma Margherita flashed through my mind. Because even though it was mainly about Don Bosco again; the strong woman behind him must not be forgotten either. Feeling satisfied, I got into my car”.  Two days, later I hear on the radio: “Yaremchuk hoes Diawara down. Referee Verboomen has no choice but to bring out his first yellow card after less than ten minutes", I thought to myself, ‘here comes Don Bosco’. Hats off to Nathan for living this Don Bosco Spirit in such an inspiring way and Don Bosco is definitely proud of him.

Text: Tim BEX


ANS - “Agenzia iNfo Salesiana” is a on-line almost daily publication, the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation enrolled in the Press Register of the Tibunal of Rome as n 153/2007.

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