When Bibiana Steinhaus was at the recent G8 summit in her capacity as a policewoman, she took the opportunity to observe Angela Merkel at close quarters. Despite the fact that all seven of her counterparts were male, the German Chancellor was very much in charge of proceedings as host of the event in Heiligendamm. Bibiana will soon find herself in similar circumstances - only in her case, there will be 22 men and it will be on a football pitch. "Mrs Merkel showed that she can assert herself, so let's see if any of that has rubbed off on me," said Bibiana at a press conference at the German Football Association's (DFB) Frankfurt head office.

Next season, the 2007 Female Referee of the Year will become the first woman to be in charge of men's professional football matches in Germany, starting out in Bundesliga 2. "For me, the key is to be consistent with every team and ensure plenty of communication. I set myself very high standards, so let's see if that stands me in good stead," explained the tall, confident 28-year-old.

Steinhaus, born in the Harz mountains of northern Germany, knows that her life is about to change beyond recognition. "The media spotlight will definitely increase a lot, as we can already see here today," said the new 'First Lady' of German refereeing at her official introduction, bringing a smile to the face of DFB Communications Director Harald Stenger and Volker Roth, Chairman of the DFB Refereeing Committee. Flashlights, TV cameras and around 60 journalists were all present to hear the words of a woman held up as an example within her profession.

Clean slate
Steinhaus is already a familiar face on the German sporting scene. Since 1999, she has been refereeing top-level women's Bundesliga matches; in 2001, she began officiating at Regionalliga (third division) men's matches and since 2005, she has been on the FIFA women's referees list.

She also knows the Bundesliga 2 environment very well, as she has been working as a referee's assistant at this level since 2004. "The more fans there are in the stadium, the less you hear what they're saying," she says with typical wit, while relishing the chance to officiate matches involving big established clubs such as FC Koln, FC Kaiserslautern, 1860 Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach.

It does not take more than a few minutes in Steinhaus' presence to realise that she will doubtless be a success in her new career. She has an answer to every question, coming across as conscientious and disarmingly convincing. She is a model of consistency, but still manages to appear relaxed rather than uptight.

"I apply the rules and make sure that everything is above board. I have executive responsibilities, as it were, in both of my jobs, which is a real advantage," she says, in reference to her 'day job' as a policewoman. Her new tasks hold no fears for her: "Everyone has a clean slate at the start of the season - coaches, players and refs too," she explains, also mentioning that she expects "no special privileges".

Easing the pressure
In other countries, women have been officiating in the men's top flight for some time now - Nicole Petignat, for example in Switzerland - and 65-year-old Roth is convinced that Steinhaus will be ready to cross that bridge when the time comes. "We've been watching Bibiana for some years now," he explains, "and she's got a good career ahead of her. The main thing for us is to help her develop without putting too much pressure on her." Roth, who is a former international referee, is proud of the fact that Steinhaus has already handled home games involving newly promoted FC St. Pauli and even, as a mere 23-year-old, the big East German derby between Chemnitz and Erzgebirge Aue.

"The confidence that people have in me gives me great satisfaction and I'll be working hard to repay their faith," promises Steinhaus in reply to Roth. She does admit that, compared with her male colleagues, she "may have to train harder than the rest sometimes. We shouldn't forget that referees are professional athletes." It is not yet known which two assistants will referee with her, but one thing is for sure - they will both be men.

Following in her father's footsteps
So how on earth did Steinhaus become a referee? "I suppose you could say that I was born with a whistle in my mouth. My father was a referee and still officiates at local level and in veterans' matches," she smiles, before mentioning someone else who has been instrumental in her career. "Wolfgang Illhardt, the referees coordinator for my club, SV Bad Lautersberg, was my sponsor as well as my fiercest critic," she continues, before adding with a grin: "I used to play as well, as a left-back, but I wasn't very successful, so I soon turned my attentions to refereeing."

Back in 1995, Gertrud Gebhard was a referee's assistant in the men's Bundesliga for two matches, and it would appear that Steinhaus is well on the way to improving on those achievements in the not-too-distant future. She herself refuses to speculate, leaving Roth to explain that "it will all depend on performances". That being the case, Steinhaus has every chance.