The constant growth of women’s football is providing opportunities aplenty for lovers of the game, among them Claudia Umpierrez of Uruguay. Given the fact that she has a grandfather and an aunt who both went into refereeing, an uncle who played the game professionally and a father who is a coach, it was no surprise that football would come to occupy a central part in her life.
Yet while many a teenager dreams of playing the game, she chose instead to pursue a career in refereeing, a career in which she made history on 5 March by becoming the first woman to take charge of a men’s professional football match in her country: Central Espanol’s 3-2 defeat of Tacuarembo on the opening day of the season in Uruguay’s second division.
In creating a precedent in an environment that is moving towards gender equality, Umpierrez has made quite an impact. “I haven’t really sat down and thought about what it means yet, though I know only too well how much I’ve had to work to make this opportunity happen,” she said, in conversation with FIFA.com.
“The way I see it, it’s just part of my job and I feel I’m the same person I was when I refereed in the division below last year,” added the 33-year-old official. “If anyone sees it as another open door through which more female referees can come into the professional game in Uruguay, then so much the better.”
So why did she go into refereeing? “I was a centre-forward and I wasn’t a bad player, and refereeing is just something I got into out of curiosity,” came the reply. “I wanted to get a start by doing a course with my aunt in my home town, Pan de Azucar, but I was 16 and I was too young.”
Her interest in officiating was reawakened in 2002, after she moved to Montevideo to study law, her other profession. “My father didn’t like the idea because he knew how referees get treated,” she explained. “I won him round by telling him I could make some money to help me with my studies.”
Only three of the 12 women who took the refereeing course Umpierrez signed up for went on to complete it, and though she was one of them, there have been times since then when she has considered giving it all up: “The first was in 2008. I’d been in the fourth division for four years and I felt a bit bogged down in terms of how the instructors viewed me.”
Times are changing, however. As the quantity and quality of women’s competitions increased, she decided to bide her time and wait for opportunities to come her way. In 2009 she began taking charge of third division matches and was officiating in the second tier a year later, when she was also appointed a FIFA international referee and officiated at the South American U-20 Women’s Championship and in the Women’s Copa Libertadores.
“That’s when I realised that I did have opportunities and decided to prioritise it as a career,” she explained.
Perseverance pays off
Her solid performances at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012, where she refereed a match on the opening day and one of the semi-finals, pointed to a very bright future for Umpierrez, despite increasingly stiff competition. It was then, however, that she began to have doubts again.
“It was in the middle of 2014,” she recalled. “They called me for the U-20 World Cup as a reserve referee, but I’d had a baby in January and I failed the speed exercise at the final test that June. I thought my chance of refereeing at a senior World Cup had gone.”
“The support of my husband Gabriel (Popovits), who is a FIFA international assistant referee, was crucial at that time, and I’m grateful at how things turned out,” she explained. “They called me for the Algarve Cup. I trained hard, passed and got the call to go to Canada as my reward.”
Recalling her experiences at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, she said: “The FIFA preparation process gave me the chance to absorb absolutely everything I experienced there. I refereed three matches, including the quarter-final between Canada and England, which attracted a record crowd. I’ve never performed in front of 54,000 people before! I came away from Canada all the stronger and ready to do what I’m doing now.”
One game at a time
Her promotion to the highest level came this year, and though only 400 fans turned up at Central Espanol’s ground, Umpierrez was “nervous” all the same. Watching her from the stands were her family, including her daughter Naomi. “When I came out she shouted: ‘Hello my lovely mummy!’ It’s the nicest thing someone’s ever shouted at me on the pitch.”
As she went on to say, all eyes were on her: “I wanted to get the whole ‘There’s a woman refereeing for the first time’ thing over with quickly. I wanted to focus on my job and for everything to go back to normal.
“I think I did well,” she replied when asked to assess her performance. “But I got hit in the back with the ball by being in the wrong position, so I was annoyed about that. It’s something to work on.
“We are our own biggest critics,” she added, confirming that she and her husband talked over her maiden second division outing. And though Umpierrez also runs the rule over her colleagues, she is determined to maintain her own approach to refereeing: “I don’t copy anyone. I want to develop my own style and interpret what’s needed in every game.”
So what does the future hold for her? “I’m not in a position to referee a Penarol-Nacional match yet, though obviously I’d love to,” she answered. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, though. I need to show that I’m here to stay and that I haven’t got where I am by chance. I feel I have a responsibility to show that we female referees have got what it takes to officiate at a professional level. If we get the opportunities, then it’s up to us to prove that.”