FRANKFURT, May 1 (Reuters) It is easy to imagine a teenager such as Argentina's Lionel Messi or Spain's Cesc Fabregas taking the World Cup by storm, perhaps scoring the winning goal in the final.
But a teenager refereeing the biggest match on the soccer calendar? Unthinkable.
There will not be a single referee under the age of 30 at the 2006 World Cup next month, and the vast majority will be well into their 40s.
The reasons are all too clear when you see pictures of players angrily remonstrating with referees, while fans scream abuse from the stands and pundits pore over television pictures looking for the most marginal errors.
''It's all about pressure,'' says Markus Merk, a 44-year-old German referee. ''And the ability to deal with that pressure comes from experience.
''When you referee your first match it's not going to be a high-profile one with 20,000 people there. But you need spirit as well.'' FIFA gathered 44 referees with that blend of character and experience at a series of tests in Frankfurt in March and the number was cut to 23 at the final selection meeting on March 31.
The 32-year-old Australian Mark Shield has the honour of being the youngest referee at the tournament, while Russia's Valentin Ivanov, born on July 4 1961, is the oldest, at the very edge of the age limit of 45.
DEATH THREATS Two of the more recent high-profile members of the profession will be missing from the June 9 to July 9 tournament.
Italian Pierluigi Collina, the five-times world referee of the year with the distinctive bald pate, resigned from the Italian Association of Referees last year and would in any case have been over the age limit this time.
Sweden's Anders Frisk also resigned last year after receiving death threats following his handling of a match between Barcelona and Chelsea in the Champions League.
''I don't think there'll ever be another Collina,'' Slovakia's Lubos Michel, who along with Merk is now one of the most respected and high-profile referees in the world game, told Reuters at the Frankfurt workshop.
''But there are a lot of top-quality referees around who were maybe forgotten before, including my friend Markus Merk. He's a great referee.'' MORE REUTERS PDS VP0917