By Sonia Denoncourt Referee development – Canadian Soccer Association FIFA referee

As we all know, women’s football has been growing rapidly for some time, but what about women referees? How is the development of their skills being addressed in order to meet the ever-increasing demand?

In 1994, FIFA took the unprecedented step of appointing the first four female assistant referees in the world. These women were included in the universal (read: male) list. In 1995, FIFA followed this up with significant changes for women referees and assistant referees, by introducing FIFA’s first ever list of women referees just in time for the Women’s World Cup in Sweden.

Year upon year the list has grown, and today we have 110 FIFA women referees and 135 FIFA women assistant referees across 75 countries and 204 national associations. Who would have thought just ten years ago that the number of women officials would have seen such an explosive increase? There are now enough women referees to officiate at most of the international matches. In fact, during the two most recent international competitions, the Women’s World Cup 1999 USA and the Sydney Olympics 2000, the referees and assistant referees officiating were all women. A significant step forward!

In order to reach this point, those national associations with women referees and assistant referees had to lend a hand in offering their candidates training opportunities. Not all of the national associations share the same convictions, nor the same accepting attitudes, and they are each embedded in a different social environment. Consequently, their women’s development programmes were not pursued to the same level.

In order to better develop women’s refereeing, national associations should open more opportunities to women. In many countries, the best matches are reserved for men. Since men’s football has an established worldwide professional network compared with that available to women (whose professional network is taking off in the United States but is elsewhere either non-existent or at best embryonic), it goes without saying that the standards are higher (higher expectations of referees and a greater challenge). Women’s football matches involving the world’s best players are rare and correspondingly the majority of women’s matches are of a lower standard than those played at major sporting events, notably at the Olympic Games and the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Therefore it is not only advisable but necessary that all referees should participate in both women’s and men’s games so that they can build on their experience in a variety of contexts and at different levels of play. Variety in the matches, as in training, is fundamental for referees to be well trained. We require a diverse range of experiences to increase our options.

The football organisations have been breaking new ground and I must bring particular attention to the leadership shown by FIFA, a good example of an organisation that has opened its doors and given women opportunities to develop the sport itself. Otherwise, if she faces closed doors, it is impossible for a referee to make herself known and progress. We should open up the same opportunities to women as are available to men. At present there are three schools of thought. The first is that women should follow a development programme based along exactly the same lines as men, without any alterations. The second school of thought is one in which it is believed to be more appropriate to develop women referees through a distinct parallel programme tailor-made for women. The third represents a combination of the first two, that is to say a common course with specific modules relating to the special requirements of women players. This is the one I favour!

Upon reading many studies we might be drawn to the conclusion that women’s needs are distinct from men’s and that they are physically and physiologically different from men. But a referee is a referee and that is why we need a common programme. Nevertheless, men and women face different challenges on the pitch, since society has progressed with fixed perceptions and ideas of what a woman’s role should be, so we need to offer support and supervision to meet the needs and expectations of these women referees. Without taking into account these differences, any programme will be doomed to failure. Referees are athletes and they have to expand their knowledge if they are to perform at a high level. On that note, here are some subjects that should be addressed, apart from the technical aspects and the Laws of the Game, when training women referees (* denotes that several topics would be useful for male referees too): Progression opportunities for women, career goals*, physical training and fitness tests*, personality development and management of interpersonal relationships*, media management*, facing up to difficulties and ambiguous situations, dealing with discrimination, physical and psychological differences, nutrition*, harassment*, health advice* including maternity, biorhythms*, menstruation, anorexia, endocrine factors, psychological barriers*, injury*, etc.

We lose around 80% of our new referees in under two years mainly due to a lack of the following elements: support, supervision, backing, training, systems of improvement, mentors, women role models, communication, interpersonal relationships, etc. Retaining referees already in the system and recruiting new women referees remain the two biggest priorities for the national associations.

We can split the problem into 3 main parts: 1) lack of education, 2) lack of recognition, 3) lack of referee retention and recruitment. These components are worthy of more detailed analysis. They may even be the subject of a coming article.

Think about it and until the next time!