Businesswoman, instructor, director of an African cinematographic project and an international referee’s assistant, Rosalie Tempa Ndah Francois’ softly-spoken approach and calm tone undoubtedly mask a strong and determined personality. An enterprising and hard-working campaigner for the rights of women and their role in society, Ndah Francois could hardly be setting a better example.
Indeed, the 38-year-old is currently living “a dream”, having been chosen to form part of the group of match officials set to oversee the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™. “To date, the highlight of my refereeing career came at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. I felt very proud and happy to be representing my country and my African colleagues,” she tells FIFA.com.
Behind the Benin national’s success story lies a tale of hard work and dedication, with Ndah Francois’ determination to break down barriers and preconceptions carrying her through in an often hostile environment for those of her gender. “It’s not easy to make your way in African football, and especially in Muslim countries,” she explains.
“You have to be strong, because there are a lot of cultural and religious barriers. That said, great steps towards greater tolerance are being taken. It’s starting to be understood that there’s room for everyone in football,” continues the mother of one. “It’s not as difficult as it used to be, such as when I started out and we weren’t even allowed into the stadiums.”
Having first played football amongst the boys at her school, it was a coach of hers who suggested Ndah Francois try training as a referee. She did just that, passing the relevant exams before going on to achieve a FIFA international referee’s assistants’ license in 2003.
“The hardest thing in my country is getting the chance to take charge of top-level matches, because there aren’t many solid women’s competitions,” says Ndah Francois. “The support FIFA gives us, which enables us to attend courses and take part in tournaments, is vital for helping us to improve, as well as giving us guidelines to work with when we get back home.”
A multi-talented official
Speaking of her home, Ndah Francois has become something of an expert in juggling the varied demands of training, work and family life. “I work for Cinéma Numérique Ambulant (www.c-n-a.org), which is an international network of associations that put on film showings in rural settings and in populous neighbourhoods in urban areas in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger,” explains the head of the Benin branch of the network.
“It is aimed towards groups of people who are denied access to culture. Via these showings we try to make people conscious and aware of the most serious problems that affect African people, such as arranged marriages and childhood problems.”
As if that were not enough, Ndah Francois also has her own hairdressing business, which “is also a school where we train women and, once they reach a certain standard, we let them go off and set up on their own. Of course, whenever I go to an international get-together with my fellow referees, there’s always one that asks me to plait her hair in typical African style!” she says with a smile.
“It’s simply a question of being well-organised, so you have time for everything. I don’t have a moment to waste,” says Ndah Francois, when asked how she manages to fit so much in. Able to keep calm and composed at all times, despite the stresses of such a packed schedule, this level of composure is arguably the greatest weapon in her footballing armoury.
“The hardest thing out on the pitch is that you only have seconds to take decisions and it’s a constant process,” she explains. “And once you’ve made your decision you have to get on with it, you can’t let your mind drift back to earlier incidents from the match. You have to blow your whistle and move on.”
Take action and then move on to the next thing, that could easily be the motto of this agile-minded and enterprising match official, who is always on the lookout for new projects to tackle. “I’d like to work on training women’s referees in my country, so that they can follow in my footsteps or go even further than I have.
“Football and refereeing are not just for men, football is for everybody,” continues Ndah Francois, as the interview comes to a close. “African women are beginning to understand that they don’t have to stay at home with the kids and make food for their husbands.
"There needs to be more examples to follow, so that women get involved in other activities. I really want to work in Benin to develop women’s refereeing.” And given everything she has achieved so far, who would bet against her?