Have you ever shouted at an assistant referee for getting an offside decision wrong only to watch a replay showing that the official actually got it right? And have you ever argued with a friend about an offside incident even after seeing it replayed again and again on television?
If the answer is yes to both those questions, then you will no doubt appreciate just how difficult it is for an assistant linesman to make a correct offside decision in a split second, especially while running hard on the touchline to keep up with the players and without the benefit of slow-motion replays.
Tough calls like that are part and parcel of the assistant referee’s job, a thankless one that requires the ability to concentrate for every second of the 90 minutes while shrugging off the complaints and criticism of fans, players and coaching staff. Given working conditions like that, it is little wonder that assistant referees are a tough breed.
For Spain’s Yolanda Parga Rodriguez, who will be running the touchline at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, becoming an assistant referee was a long-cherished dream, as she tells FIFA.com. “My father was a linesman in Spain, and when I was a young I went into the living room one day wearing his kit and said to him, ‘I want one too’. My father didn’t like the idea too much but he gave me his support, and now he’s thrilled with how I’ve done and supports me more than anyone. Every father wants their sons to follow in their footsteps, but in my dad’s case it was his daughter.”
A mother herself, the 32-year-old has had to overcome many obstacles to get to where she is today, especially when starting out. Having grown in confidence and experience, her biggest problem is juggling her day job as a social worker with her duties as a match official. “It’s not always easy to combine the two,” she explains. “I’m lucky because I work in the morning, leaving me free to train in the afternoon. But when competitions come around, I have to give up holidays and days off, and ask for time off to be able to travel. My family are my biggest support and they help me an awful lot.”
Also essential is the support of colleagues, which will be very much in evidence once more when Yolanda and her fellow match officials come together for the finals in Germany, where she can rely on plenty of back-up from compatriot Maria Luisa Villa Gutierrez. “We are the best of friends and we spend the whole day talking. We don’t stop,” says Maria Luisa, who became an international assistant referee in 2002.
In love with offside
Prior to that Maria Luisa coached young boys before taking a refereeing course to find out more about the game. When she passed, she had eyes only for the touchline: “The thing that excited me most about football was the offside rule. It’s a continual challenge, and it’s amazing how much teams work on their offside tactics. I prepare really well before every game. I study team tactics and the characteristics of every player.”
Obviously there are situations where you’re not so sure but you can’t freeze up.
Experts in the field, the Spanish duo need no replays to help them make their minds up. “You see it, you’re focused and your brain responds,” says Yolanda. “Obviously there are situations where you’re not so sure but you can’t freeze up. The game doesn’t stop and you don’t have any time to go over it. The important thing is not to let it bother you for the rest of the game.”
Maria Luisa, who is studying for her civil service examinations and runs the line in Spain’s Segunda B division (the country’s third tier), has this to say on the art of being a good assistant linesman: “To my mind there are two key factors: training, so that you can get in the right position, in line with the last defender; and concentration. You can’t switch off for a second.”
Both were on duty at last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Germany and are excited at the prospect of returning there for the biggest competition on the women’s calendar, an achievement that brought them heartfelt congratulations from their male colleagues in the Spanish first division.
“They love women’s football in Germany and it’s going to be a very special tournament,” says Maria Luisa. Asked to name the highlight of her career to date, she finally opts for the final of the Women’s Olympic Tournament Beijing 2008: “Like the players I always remember the finals. It’s always difficult to get to one and in our case there’s another factor that comes into play: if one of the teams are from your confederation, that rules you out.”
Both are fervent football fans and watch as many games as they can. “You’re learning all the time,” they say. “You watch other colleagues and you take things you can adapt to the way you officiate.”
With a little under a month to go before Germany 2011 gets underway, the two are busy making final preparations and watching what football they can. All the while they are maintaining the fitness levels they will need to pass tests organised by the Spanish Football Association prior to their departure and further tests held by FIFA before the big kick-off in Germany, where their every move is sure to come in for scrutiny from the watching world. And if they do get a decision wrong, it will not be for a lack of knowledge, preparation or dedication.