The recent Algarve Cup, held in the south of Portugal, was an important competition in many respects. A timely dress rehearsal for four teams that will be taking part later this year at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, it also gave the eight other competing nations the chance to acquire some valuable international experience in an increasingly prestigious event. Last but certainly not least, for the 62 referees and assistants referees officiating at the tournament it also marked the final phase in their efforts to earn selection for Germany 2011, the end of a long and nerve-wracking four-year process.
“They were a bit emotional and anxious and they were under pressure, but they stayed alert the whole time,” Sonia Denoncourt, the head of women’s referees at the FIFA Refereeing Department told FIFA.com. “They know very well that this is their final examination. They’ve done all the tests we’ve asked them to and we’ll be looking at the results now. Then, in about mid-April, we’ll be announcing the list of 48 match officials (18 referees and 30 assistants) who’ll be going to Germany.”
Congregating in the Algarve town of Olhao on 24 February, the 62 candidates spent the next two weeks with a team of trainers and instructors made up of physiotherapists, coaches, a psychologist and two masseuses. The hopefuls spent the first few days of the get-together having their fitness levels, English and knowledge of the Laws of the Game tested, all this before the week-long tournament got under way on 2 March.
“The level has really improved, pretty much in keeping with the improvement we’ve seen in the standard of play,” added Denoncourt. “Expectations for the World Cup are very high. We’ve been working to a very strict programme since 2005 and we’ve noticed in particular that fitness levels are excellent. We’ve been getting together after every game to analyse situations, and it’s been very productive because everyone’s been taking part and asking questions to clear up any doubts they’ve had.”
Having spent the last four years together, the 62 contenders have built up a real rapport with each other. “They’re competing for a place at the World Cup but they’re not at odds with each other.”
It is an important point. Team spirit is a vital ingredient in the success of any group of match officials, as the candidates are well aware. “Obviously I want to be in Germany but I want to get there through my own merits and not because one of my colleagues has made a mistake,” said Canada’s Carol Anne Chenard, who refers to her fellow hopefuls as “friends”, even though they are all vying with her for a place at the biggest event in women’s football.
Last year was an especially intense one for all of them. FIFA’s Refereeing Department started 2010 with a group of 110 referees and assistant referees to assess, all of whom officiated in at least one of the four international tournaments held during the course of the year: the Algarve Cup, the Youth Olympic Games, and the FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups, held in Germany and Trinidad and Tobago respectively. Their performances were then evaluated and a final shortlist announced.
And though it might sound like a cliché, women referees sometimes face added hurdles to make it to the top. “It’s not easy to balance refereeing with work,” said Denoncourt, well aware of the day-to-day problems these brave women face. “And it’s not easy to be away from your family for more than a month when you’re a mother, let alone get back into shape after you’ve been pregnant.”
Reaching the required standard requires great dedication and commitment. The FIFA team provides aspiring tournament officials with guidelines to help them stay in shape and also evaluates their knowledge of the Laws of the Game on a continual basis through a series of online tests.
“In a lot of cases the development of female officials is impeded by the lack of opportunities they have to officiate in elite competitions in their countries,” concluded Denoncourt. “We’ve improved in that respect, but there needs to be greater involvement and support on the part of their football associations.”
“See you in Germany maybe,” the hopefuls say as they bid nervously excited farewells to each other at Lisbon Airport. 48 of them will be reunited come 26 June and the start of the big event. In the meantime, however, they face a nailbiting wait to see if four years of hard work and dedication has paid off.