Vasconcellos: My 1991 souvenirs still bring tears to my eyes
Claudia Vasconcellos was the first woman to referee in a FIFA competition
She made history 30 years ago today at the FIFA Women’s World Cup
She discusses the pressure she felt and still getting emotional over it
It was a small walk for woman, a giant leap for womankind. It wasn’t, after all, far from the Guangdong Provincial People's Stadium dressing room on to its turf, but Claudia Vasconcellos was taking steps that would revolutionise a sport. In the uber-macho, chest-thumping days of the early 1990s, nobody knew If a woman would ever referee in a FIFA competition. Some questioned if it would ever happen. An explosion of hope, however, met the news that six females were being sent to China PR to act as assistant referees at the maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Maybe, people fantasised, one could take charge of a match before the century was out. One would… and sooner than any star-gazer could have imagined. Claudia Vasconcellos had impressed to such an extent running the line in the group stage that FIFA, despite having no plan for it going into the tournament, announced to the euphoria of women across the planet that the Brazilian would referee at that very event – and in no less than the bronze-medal match. Vasconcellos shared the widespread ecstasy… at least for a few seconds. Then she realised “the future of women's refereeing was in my hands”. Thirty years to the day after that historic, ground-breaking day for women in football, Vasconcellos graciously took time out to chat to FIFA from Montevideo, where she watched her beloved Flamengo play in the Copa Libertadores final.
FIFA: Claudia, can you tell us about the difficulties you faced when you started out refereeing? Claudia Vasconcellos: The Brazilian culture is very sexist, therefore since the start of my journey I needed to show in each match that me choosing refereeing was the result of my love for football and respect for its rules. Taking charge of games in women’s football wasn’t a problem. On the contrary, it was a solution found so that men’s referees wouldn’t have to take charge of women’s games, which was considered beneath them. However, to officiate in men's football, there was a lot of mistrust and disbelief that a woman could take charge of a match with the firmness and balance that every referee needs to control disputes between men. However, after I refereed several matches, people became accustomed to my presence. How did you feel when you heard FIFA would be organising the first Women’s World Cup? Really happy and hopeful that, finally, with its inclusion in international competitions, women's football would get the recognition it deserved and that, especially in countries where the macho culture is predominant, there would be greater support and development.
How were you chosen to officiate? The news that FIFA, along with the national associations, was researching female referees to act as assistant referees at the first Women’s World Cup gave me a lot of expectation, even knowing that only six would be chosen. Every referee’s dream is to work at a World Cup. I knew from the start that I could have the opportunity to go due to my performances in the competitions in which I’d participated, though I knew other female referees would have the same chances. Ultimately, though, my hopes and desires were fulfilled as I was the only Brazilian sent. How did you feel when you were chosen to become the first woman to referee a game in a FIFA competition? I was chosen to work as an assistant from, probably, dozens of female referees around the world. This was already a huge triumph, both personally and professionally. When I was put forward to take charge of the match for third place, something that was unprecedented in the history of world football, I was hit by great emotion and, at the same time, realised the great responsibility that had fallen on me.
What was going through your head before the game? Were you nervous? Despite having spent my entire career viewing every match as a championship decider, it was inevitable that that match, in particular, could give another path to women’s referees on an international stage. The future of women's refereeing was in my hands, as a member of the refereeing commission stated in the dressing room before the game. Even today I remember several moments from that memorable day, from going on to the pitch to arriving at the hotel. What most stands out was when I raised my arms to end the game with a deep sense of accomplishment. How proud are you of being a pioneer in women’s football, of helping it grow? I am aware of this and proud of the role I played, together with all the women’s referees who contributed.
Which players most impressed you at China 1991? I had the privilege of working in games involving highly developed teams with spectacular players. One player in particular, Michelle Akers, was unstoppable as well as having impeccable behaviour. Alongside Mia Hamm, they were the stars of that World Cup. Overall, what did you think of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup? I can only praise the entire organisation of the event, both by China and FIFA. The entire infrastructure of the hotels, training venues, transport to the games, people helping us at every stage were vital so that we could have the necessary calm to focus solely on the games. I have all the badges, caps, souvenirs, balls – in short, a collection of objects that bring tears to my eyes and fond memories of the World Cup in China, especially the kit I used for the third-place playoff.