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Searching for female referees

Published on Feb 4th, 2013, No Comments

Above: English football assistant referee Sian Massey

Female referees seem to be a rare commodity. The life, love and passion in soccer have always been attributed to men. The calls to “Mr Ref”, “Mr Linesman”, have become the norm and yet no-one has questioned the development of female referees. Where have all the former female soccer players gone?

Ladies soccer has thrived in the last ten years, with the Ladies Absa League and Ladies Sasol League feeding the South African women’s national teams in every age group. It still remains questionable as to why there are so few female soccer referees.

Concern has been raised as to the development of women in sport in general, which is still a male dominated industry.  Many female referees have progressed to the PSL, and fill various roles. Still these efforts are with little notice, as these women had to fight their way there or shine like no other to be noticed. To be a woman and grow within any male dominated industry is an achievement within itself. Whether or not women are taken seriously in soccer will have no weight to a debate. The PSL is a good example of the lack of seriousness that seems to haunt the fairer sex in sport.

Many male referees welcome the inclusion of women for diversity reasons and some referees believe that they have done all they can in promoting refereeing to retired female soccer players. Local football associations have been asked to request clubs to put forward names of women who are keen to maintain their involvement in the game, so as to be moulded for refereeing, but the request has fallen on deaf ears. It seems that ladies soccer thrives but female referees are far and few between.

Somewhere women have fallen through the cracks and have been left to carry on with their lives without the knowledge that a player’s career may end but his or her love for soccer or involvement in the game need not. It appears moreover, that women are keen to coach and manage junior teams rather than become referees. This usually happens when their own children become junior level players. The maternal instinct to become a junior team coach is somewhat appealing, as is the chance to see their own kids perform on the soccer field and to live vicariously through them, as many fathers do.

Many soccer players who retire due to age, injury or family commitments will always be former soccer players. These are the people who should be called on to become referees and continue to mark their place in the sport they love. It seems obvious that former soccer players will make good referees, but some of the best referees in the world have never kicked a ball. And still the question remains, why are former players not invited to become referees? Why are these players not urged to continue their soccer careers, just not as players, but in so many other aspects of the game? The best kept secret in being as close to the game as possible, is as a referee.

I spoke to SAFA Cape Town Head of Department, Mr Ronnie Johnson, who explained to me that women’s refereeing was always separate from the men, and when invited to join up with the men, the women continued playing soccer as their first priority. When the Absa and Sasol Leagues began, SAFA Cape Town was forced to use male referees. He says, “…this became acceptable, so there were always male referees and clubs did not make an effort to send female referees”.

According to Mr Johnson, there is a fair amount of mental preparation that goes with being a referee. “In refereeing, there is much demand and referees face abuse. Players and coaches are club orientated and are very partial. It isn’t easy to block out spectators, and coaches find it easy to criticise the referee, rather than to criticise their key players.”

Mr Johnson says he has invited clubs to participate in referee workshops and sessions and notified local football associations to urge women to take up refereeing, but clubs do not seem keen. But Mr Johnson has a new strategy to grow its base of female referees this year. He plans to compel each team participating in the 2013 women’s league to send a non-playing member to a refereeing workshop and train that person, in the hope that she will find an interest in refereeing. She will have the choice after the workshop to continue with her training or not. It is imperative that more women undertake refereeing, for fear of female referees becoming redundant, as there are already too few to even run a women’s league.

It is still unclear where the duty rests in terms of who is responsible for promoting female refereeing in Cape Town. It is hard to believe that the onus lies with clubs to send referees as representatives of their club for the LFA season, but clubs are focused on a range of other things.

Female referees have been benchmarked against male referees in terms of theoretical knowledge, physical training and development. Thus many will find the ability of female referees to be well within the standard set by SAFA and FIFA. So why are women still snubbed? I put this question to Mr Johnson, who says that it is tough to face the fact that women are still not taken seriously in this sport.

Mr Johnson has hope though, like he has in every official on the books of SAFA Cape Town. According to him, anyone can be developed into a referee. He says: “There is no better joy than to see somebody develop after you have played a small part in their development. It is greater than personal achievement.”

With the pace at which ladies soccer is growing in the country, there is only hope that the number of female referees will increase, and set a precedent for others to also train to become referees.

I believe that the plans by SAFA Cape Town to grow its base of female referees are a challenge far beyond themselves, and various factors such as intimidation, motherhood, family commitments and lack of motivation keep women from having a chance at growth in this avenue of the game.

 About the author: Gracia Michaels is a freelance writer, SAFA Cape Town football referee, former semi pro footballer and works full time in media monitoring. Follow her on Twitter @Gracia_Michaels