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At an agricultural school in Bern, Esther Staubli teaches “16 to 20-year-olds how to milk cows and feed pigs”. That’s what she told UEFA.com in August this year, after being appointed to take charge of the Women’s EURO 2017 final between the Netherlands and Denmark. Another honour beckons on Saturday, when she would be the first female referee to officiate a FIFA U-17 World Cup game, between Japan and New Caledonia at the Salt Lake Stadium.
Life is not easy for a female referee in male-dominated professional football. Rewind to 2011 and a Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool at Molineux. Sian Massey took the line as Martin Atkinson’s assistant and found herself at the receiving end of an off-air sexist rant from Andy Gray and Richard Keys. “Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her,” Keys had said. Gray was more vitriolic. “Why is there a female linesman? Somebody’s f. up big.” Sky Sports eventually suspended both commentators but football was tarnished by sexism.
Three years later at a referees’ workshop, a senior Football Association (FA) official told referee Lucy May: “Your place is in the kitchen, and not on a football field.”
In that context, Staubli’s appointment in a men’s FIFA World Cup game, albeit at Under-17 level, borders on the historic. “That FIFA has selected female referees for a men’s tournament is a logical consequence of an education programme that FIFA’s Refereeing Department started in 2016. The positive results and improvements seen in the joint preparations have shown that the time has come for elite female referees to officiate in men’s competitions together with their male colleagues,” a FIFA release said.
U-17s are not spring chickens. A lot of them are on the payroll of some of the world’s biggest football clubs. They train with the seniors and try to pick up tricks. So even at this level, player management becomes the biggest challenge for a referee. “It’s one of the skills that referees need to have. You also have to have a good football understanding: fouls, tactics, potential issues, etc. But you have to manage players in a game if something happens. You need to talk if it’s necessary, just like the players, and you have to find the right moment when it becomes necessary to speak,” Staubli had explained during the UEFA interview.
She gave a lowdown on her preparations. “After breakfast, we go to training for two hours: we have a physical session and a practical session with balls. Volunteers pretend they are football players. In the afternoon, we sometimes have de-briefings, but mostly massages and a little time to relax. On match days, you wait for the game in the evening. I personally always go for a two-hour nap before the match; that’s very important to me.”
Refereeing is not a lucrative job. Even in the Premier League, the world’s richest football league, a top referee gets around £100,000 annually — Paul Pogba’s salary is £290,000 a week. Little wonder then that Staubli had said: “In Switzerland, it’s not possible to live from refereeing.” That’s why she teaches at an agricultural school.
As for the U-17 World Cup, Staubli is one of seven female referees invited to the tournament. She was the fourth official at the Iraq versus Chile match in Kolkata on Wednesday. Another female referee, Kateryna Monzul from Ukraine, did the fourth official’s duties in the England-Mexico game.
Staubli took up refereeing when she was 21. Now a 38-year-old, she has a glittering CV. Apart from officiating the 2017 UEFA Women’s Euro final, she was a referee in the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. She was also in charge of the 2015 UEFA Women’s Champions League final. In a man’s world, Staubli has a simple theory (as she told the UEFA interviewer) for earning respect. “I always try to treat people the way I want to be treated. For me, that’s respect.”