Forty-year-old Nicole is one of those in the frame to referee at the  FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 . Last week the well-respected arbiter joined 43 of her fellow match officials at a seminar organised by  FIFA's Referees' Committee  on the island of Gran Canaria.

A keen sports fan, Petignat was a player for FC Renens in the Swiss League between 1983 and 1985 before making the move into refereeing. In fact, it was the influence of her twin sister that started Nicole on the road to where she is today, as she explains to "She (my sister) put her name down and was the only girl on the course. That's when I decided to give it a go too, to keep her company more than anything," says Petignat. "Dominique ended up giving up the course after she became pregnant, but I kept on going."  

Back then, women's football was still very much in its infancy and it was even less common to see women officiating games, but Nicole soon found herself hooked. "I really enjoyed it. After matches I always found myself thinking about things that had happened during the game. It was a great way to build up my self-confidence, experience new things and meet lots of people. That's why I've got a lot to thank my sister for," she says with a broad smile.  

A balancing act
Fortunately for Nicole, her job as a therapist is flexible enough to enable her to balance training and matches with her work commitments. Besides which, the knowledge gained in her profession has proved to be extremely valuable with regard to staying in shape and clear of injuries.  

"I follow a strict training programme, but it changes depending on which games I need to referee. The federation are incredibly supportive," she says. "My preparation includes a lot of muscle-building work because, in that aspect at least, there's a big difference compared with the men."

Blessed with a friendly nature and keen sense of team spirit, she has become one of the most popular members of the select group of officials training hard for a place at China 2007. The Swiss referee's motto of "Carpe diem" (Seize the day) has also caught the imagination of everyone involved, and this philosophy is perhaps why Nicole is not given to making long-term plans. "I don't tend to give much thought to the future, because you never know if you're going to get injured or fall ill. That's why I prefer to live in the here and now, experiencing each moment to the full."   


A sparkling CV
Quite apart from refereeing the Germany - Rest of the World game that formed part of FIFA's Centennial celebrations back in May 2004, Petignat also took charge of the Final at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 1999. "That Final was a very good game to watch, and from a refereeing perspective, it wasn't hard at all. There wasn't any pressure, the fans behaved themselves impeccably, and everything turned out fine," she recalls.

Another match also holds very special memories for the veteran official: the UEFA Cup clash between Sweden's AIK Solna and Icelandic outfit Fylkir was the first time she took charge of a professional men's game. "It was a very special game but it was also very tough. The press put me under a great deal of pressure. On top of that, there were electrical problems during the game and the earpiece I use to communicate with my assistants stopped working," she explains. Despite these difficulties, the reaction to her performance was overwhelmingly positive. 

Nicole also admits that the path to the top has not always been easy. "There have been some very difficult times when I thought about giving up. But I talked it through with my friends and with psychologists who helped me to keep going. My friends told me that I had a duty to do it for women in general, that I couldn't give it up because of them."

"The overriding mentality within the footballing world has changed massively over the last few years and I'm very happy with what has been achieved. Now I'm just the referee, not that woman who referees," says Nicole, clearly delighted with the way the sport has moved on.

Nor has she tired of officiating, despite having spent so many years in the game: "I've been going for 24 years and I'm still not even thinking about retiring." As the interview draws to a close, Petignat makes a heartfelt appeal to get more women involved in the beautiful game: "Football teaches you so much and opens the door to a staggering amount of opportunities and new experiences." No truer word spoken…