The past three years in particular have seen many historical firsts in the appointment of female referees to take charge of men’s football competitions. Groundhopper Alethea takes a look at the history of women officiating the men’s game.
Not many days go by that I don’t turn on the TV to watch at least one soccer game. As I live in Ecuador, that usually means I’m tuning in to a LigaPro Serie A match (that’s the top domestic level in which “my” team, Barcelona, won the title last season). Thankfully, there’s decent coverage of European football as well, so I have been able to watch plenty of Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, and other European league matches along with the occasional MLS games, World Cup qualifiers, etc. over the past year since I became an expat. Of course, there’s also plenty of coverage of other South American domestic leagues and international games.
Thus, on May 27, I turned on the TV to watch a CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores group stage game between Defensa y Justicia of Argentina, and Independiente del Valle of Ecuador. For reference, the Copa Libertadores is the highest level of competition in South American club football. As the team captains greeted each other and the referees for the coin toss, I noticed something out of the ordinary: All of the referees were women!
It was only in September 2020 that a female officiated as an assistant referee for the first time in a Copa Libertadores game; this happened twice on the same day in two different games because the scheduled (male) referees tested positive for Covid and had to be replaced at the last minute. The game I watched last week is the first time that a female has been in charge of a Copa Libertadores game. So the sight of four female refs on the pitch was nothing short of astonishing. In addition, the two video match officials were also women, making the entire officiating crew 100% female.
Female Soccer Referees: The Trailblazers
Women have been actively participating, albeit mostly from the sidelines, in men’s football for almost a century. Petra Tabarelli, who claims to be “the world’s leading expert on the evolution of the Laws of the Game and the history of women referees in men’s football” has thoroughly researched the subject and created a comprehensive database of female referees. According to Tabarelli, Edith Klinger from Austria, who was active from 1935 – 1938, was the first female referee to officiate both men’s and women’s matches.
In spite of ample evidence documenting Edith Klinger’s achievements, FIFA recognized Drahşan Arda of Turkey as the world’s first female football referee in 2018, perhaps because she was still alive to pursue the designation. Arda refereed for thirty years in Turkey and Germany.
In the early 80s, women in professional sports – as players, game officials, coaches and front office personnel – were virtually non-existent. So it was a groundbreaking achievement when, in May 1981, Betty Ellis became the first female to officiate a professional soccer game in the U.S. She was a lineswoman at a North American Soccer League (NASL) match between the Portland Timbers and Calgary Boomers at Civic Stadium (now Providence Park).
Advancement of Female Referees
Ingrid Jonsson (Sweden) and five other female assistant referees were invited to China for the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup. Jonsson, who started refereeing in 1983, recalls that it was the first competitive international tournament in which women officiated. However, at the time, they could not be appointed to games because there were no women on the 1991 FIFA List of Referees. Jonsson ended up working as a lineswoman in the Final. Her colleague Cláudia Vasconcelos Guedes of Brazil, was the first female referee to take charge in a FIFA tournament. In the third-place playoff game on November 29, 1991, Guedes, and her assistants, China’s Zuo Xiudi and New Zealand’s Linda Black, also became the first all-female team to officiate in a FIFA tournament.
A few years later, Canadian Sonia Denoncourt became the first woman to be designated as an official FIFA-accredited referee.
In 1999, a pool of 31 referees composed entirely of women were in charge of the third edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Subsequently, all match officials for the women’s tournament at the 2000 Summer Olympics (the second time there was a women’s Olympic football competition) were also female.
Around the same time, women were receiving their first appointments at the top levels of the men’s game. According to Football Makes History, “The first female referee in a European first division in men’s football was Nicole Petignat of Switzerland (1999) and the first female assistant referee was Gertrude Gebhard of Germany (1995).” The first female assistant referee at the international level was Nelly Viennot (France) who worked the UEFA European Championship Qualifiers in 1996. And the first female lead referee for an international match organized by UEFA was Nicole Petignat (Switzerland) in 2003.
Author’s note: After publication of this article, I was contacted by Dr. Lale Orta of Turkey, who states that she was the first female referee in a top European division (a Süper Lig match on May 29, 1999, thus beating Petignat in Switzerland by one day) as well as the first female assistant referree (in 1990). I am happy to set the record straight.
The Women Refereeing Men’s Football in England
Women were less common running the sidelines of men’s football in England in the early 20th century. The FA banned women from playing on Football League grounds in 1921; female referees were not regarded any better. Thus women didn’t reach the top levels of officiating the men’s game until the 90s.
Wendy Toms made history when, in 1991, she worked as the fourth referee in the old Third Division. She later became the first female to officiate as an assistant referee in the Football League (1994) and then the Premier League (1996).
In 2010, Amy Fearn was the first woman to take charge of a Football League match when the original referee was injured during the game and she took over for the last 20 minutes of play. Fearn became the first female to referee an FA Cup game in the main draw in 2013.
Sian Massey-Ellis, currently the highest ranked female official in the UK, started running the line in the Football League in 2009 and has been an assistant referee for Premier League games since 2010.
Rebecca Welch, who became a referee in 2010, recently made history as the first female appointed to take charge of an EFL match in April 2021.
Per the BBC, as of June 2020, there were 2,146 women refereeing across all levels of English football. The Football Association stated that “The number of female referees in English football has increased by 72% since 2016.”
Top Female Soccer Referees in Europe
There are a few names you will hear frequently when discussing history-making women working the men’s game in Europe.
Bibiana Steinhaus began refereeing in the men’s 2. Bundesliga in 2007 and established her name as the first female referee in German men’s professional football. She was the first woman to officiate a Bundesliga game in 2017. On the international level, Steinhaus was in charge of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final in 2017 as well as the Women’s World Cup final in 2011 and the gold medal match for the Women’s Olympics in 2012 at Wembley Stadium.
Stéphanie Frappart was the first woman to referee in France’s Ligue 2 in 2014, and made history again by officiating her first game in Ligue 1, in 2019. Frappart was the first woman to take charge of a major European final when she officiated the UEFA Super Cup match between Liverpool and Chelsea in August 2019. She was part of an all-female on-field team; a male referee served as the fourth official. Frappart took charge of refereeing a men’s UEFA Champions League match in December 2020 (another first) and was the first woman in charge of a men’s World Cup Qualifying match in March 2021. Frappart will continue to make history in the coming weeks as she has been selected to work as a support match official at the Euros.
Women Officiating Football Games Around the World
The story is similar when you look at historic refereeing milestones around the globe over the past few years. For reference, Petra Tabarelli found the first occurrence of three females officiating in a top-level men’s soccer match anywhere in the world at a Brazilian Serie A game in June 2003.
In 2019, Yoshimi Yamashita, alongside Makoto Bozono and Naomi Teshirogi, took charge of a group match in the AFC Cup. It marked the first time that an all-female team officiated a continental men’s match in Asia.
In August 2020, Kathryn Nesbitt became the first female official to work the final of an MLS competition when she assisted in the MLS is Back Tournament Final matchup between the Portland Timbers and Orlando City SC. Nesbitt also assisted in the MLS Cup final in December 2020, making her the first woman to referee a championship match in professional men’s sports in North America, almost forty years after Betty Ellis first ran the line in the NASL.
In January 2021, three women became the first to control a match at a senior Confederation of African Football (CAF) men’s tournament. They refereed a group-stage game in the African Nations Championship (CHAN), which is the second most senior national team competition in the continent after the Africa Cup of Nations.
In February 2021, Brazilian referee Edina Alves Batista became the first woman to officiate the Club World Cup. She, along with Mariana de Almeida (Argentina) and Neuza Back (Brazil), were the first women to be appointed to work a senior FIFA men’s tournament.
On May 19, 2021, the first ever all-women’s crew in a men’s match in Concacaf history took the field at the 2021 Flow Concacaf Caribbean Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The officiating crew was led by Center Referee Tori Penso, while Karen Diaz of Mexico and Stephanie-Dale Yee Sing of Jamaica served as Assistant Referees. Francia Gonzalez worked as the Fourth Referee and Dianne Ferreira-James of Guyana as Assessor.
Thus, the Copa Libertadores game I watched last week was the first time in history that there were six female referees working a top-level international men’s soccer game.
FIFA Female Soccer Referees By the Numbers
Because I like to use raw data to make comparisons, I downloaded the 2021 FIFA List of International Match Officials and did some number crunching.
Of the 211 FIFA-affiliated associations (countries), 156 have at least one female international match official. Those 156 associations have a total of 2,823 referees of which 822 (29.12%) are women who are accredited as follows:
343 International Referees
459 International Assistant Referees
20 Video Match Officials
Female Soccer Referees: Why Does It Matter?
As the world continues to tackle issues of gender equality in all aspects of life, ensuring that women have the same opportunities as men to officiate soccer at all levels is a necessary focus of the stakeholders in the game. Female referees continue to deal with sexist comments and actions on the field, by announcers, and by the public. This is also evidenced on the internet, where my incognito searches for “female soccer referees” in English and Spanish returned more than half of the first page results with titles that include the words “most beautiful/sexy/hottest.”
In an interview for FIFA.com on International Women’s Day, Kari Seitz, who is currently FIFA’s Head of Refereeing, Women, summed up her outlook for the future: “It starts with the people at the top taking women referee development seriously. Then the women have to do the work. I don’t want women appointed because they’re women. They need to earn the positions, pass the fitness tests and be technically capable. There has really been a huge change already. The sky is the limit. There is no stopping us now and I can’t wait to see what many more great accomplishments are ahead for women referees and women referee coaches, instructors, observers and administrators.”
Many of the world’s top soccer organizations have implemented changes to better support women in football, so I expect to see more women officiating at the top levels of the men’s game. As CONMEBOL said about the historic appointment of an all-female officiating crew for the Copa Libertadores match, “It is further proof of the organization’s commitment to the development and professionalization of more women on and off the field, promoting gender equality and providing more decision-making spaces.”
As Football Makes History states, “It is a step towards equality, but there is still a long way to go before female referees no longer make history in men’s football. Because that means that it is normal.”