The moment of truth is nearly upon us. The FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 is about to kick off, and after months of training sessions, tests and hard work, the women in the middle are also ready and raring to go. The task of officiating the 32 games that will decide whiich team are the world's best has fallen to a specially trained corps of 14 referees and 22 referees' assistants.
The first of them to get a taste of the action will be Tammy Ogston, the referee in charge of Monday's curtain-raiser between holders Germany and Argentina in Shanghai. Although the Australian is no stranger to the biggest women's football show on earth, having also participated at USA 1999 and 2003, she is just as excited about her job as she was the day she refereed her first match.
"I can't wait for the game to come around," a clearly excited Ogston told FIFA.com. "I'm very excited and happy they have put their faith in me for the opening game." On the eve of this, her third world finals, the Antipodean official is better placed than most to gauge the progress made in women's refereeing. "FIFA's Refereeing Department is doing a great job," she said, "and we are much more professional now. It goes without saying that we are 100 per cent better than were in 1999." Having been an international referee for ten years now, Tammy is the voice of experience among the group of officials and admits, not without a broad smile, that her colleagues often seek her out for advice.
One of the new referees in China is the Colombian Adriana Correa, who will take her first steps on the world stage when Ghana meet Australia in Hangzhou on Wednesday. Even though she has been an international match official for some eight years now, she confessed: "I'm very excited because it's not the same to referee a first division match in my home country as it is here. All the same my assistants are women with a lot of experience and that gives me a lot of confidence. We've been preparing together for a while now and we know each other well. That makes me feel calm."
An ongoing process
The referees, who arrived in China just over a week ago, will be staying together throughout the competition at their hotel base in Shanghai. From there they will travel to the various venues for their designated games, before returning to base camp to continue with their specialised training programmes. As well as fitness training, they will be put through their paces in regular theory sessions and will be reviewing matches to try and identify possible errors and improve their performance levels. A psychologist will also be on hand to help with their mental preparations ahead of games.
In women's tournaments the quartets of match officials do not necessarily come from the same confederation, although every attempt is made to find the closest possible affinity between the four to ensure greater understanding out on the pitch. Sonia Denoncourt, the head of women's refereeing at FIFA's Refereeing Department, explains how the selection system works. "We don't have as many referees among the women and we certainly don't want to sacrifice quality. What we are looking for above all is compatibility on the field of play and the closest possible language links in the team selected for each game. The most important thing for us is that the referees have a good performance in the match."
As the women's game develops, so does female refereeing. The number of women who decide to become officials is increasing every year and FIFA is working hard to improve their preparation. "Our objective is to make women's refereeing even more professional," said Denoncourt. "There are more and more female referees and we are in the process of implementing a monitoring and training system."
Over the last two and a half years, match officials have been called together for a series of training camps, and refereeing standards have been regularly monitored at various tournaments around the globe. "The idea is to divide the programme up into four-year periods between the World Cups," added Denoncourt. "Naturally we have improved since 2003, but we are well aware there is still a long way to go yet."