People always say the job of referee is the hardest one in the game. But to make it even more difficult, could you imagine being a Muslim woman referee in an African country?

Those are three big challenges and it's hardly surprising that only one woman in the world has met them in full, to the extent of being selected as a referee at many international tournaments including the African Cup of Nations for Women, the Olympic Games and many FIFA tournaments including the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Fatou Gaye is small, slender, smiling, fit and calm. She would be remarkable for her achievements anywhere in the world; even more remarkable in Africa which only has 56 international women referees. Even in the supposedly gender-equal UK, women referees are not always accepted with open arms.

"This is not park football, so what are women doing here? It is tokenism, for politically correct idiots." said Mike Newell, then manager of Luton Town, an English League One club, in his post-match news conference, referring to referee's assistant Amy Raynor.

The comment was later retracted by Mr. Newell, but the reality is that similar sentiments exist in the male-dominated world of football. Women are simply not up to the job. They do not understand the game, they are not physically strong or quick enough and - above all - they do not belong in top-level football.

Up to the task
They should pay a visit to the house of Fatou Gaye in Senegal and see for themselves the pressure cooker environment in which she works. She has been refereeing since 1988 and was appointed as an international referee in 1996.

As you enter her home, you are immediately hit by the calmness that is her overriding characteristic and one which contributes to her great success on the football pitch. However, you wonder how this placid mother of one, who also has a full-time job as a secretary, chooses to put herself in the firing line in one of the toughest jobs there is.

"I just love football; it is as simple as that. Years ago, I realised that I was not good enough to be a player but still wanted to be involved in the game and so I chose to be a referee," she says.

Her matter-of-fact comments understate the huge barriers she has had to overcome. While Senegal is reasonably moderate, it is still a Muslim country. Traditionally, it is not seen as appropriate for women to go out to work, so to succeed in the male-dominated environment of refereeing - to the level that she has reached - is a huge achievement.

"At first, my family were reticent because in Africa there are certain things that Muslim families do not accept, so at first things were very difficult. So what do you do then, give up? You persevere! You carry on in your chosen field and eventually my family accepted it."

In order to reach the highest levels of refereeing, you have to pass a series of fitness and proficiency tests to ensure that you are capable of keeping up with the pace of play at an international level.

These are targets that she has met with ease and aplomb. Her husband, sympathetic to a somewhat unusual career choice, is more than supportive."Refereeing is a profession and it is one that Fatou is very good at," he says. "So why should she not do it? I played football to a good standard and so I understand the game. They (female referees) are very brave, at ease with themselves, so I do not believe that there is any difference. They do a good job. I am delighted to see Fatou refereeing at such a high level. It is a fantastic achievement."

What's the difference?
Everyone asks if she feels that it is tough being a referee in what has traditionally been a man's game? In her typical, unassuming manner she makes no distinction whatsoever. She does not talk about refereeing a match in terms of gender. It is solely about the job in hand.

"As soon as you get the call, it is constantly on your mind whether it is a men's match or a women's match. Beforehand, you can be apprehensive, especially when you don't know the two teams. However now I am nearly 40 and after 11 years in the business I am used to the big games" she says.

She is meticulous in her preparation, making sure that she has the necessary tools of her trade.
"Any match when you are a referee is a hard match, whether it is youth soccer, men's or women's. It is difficult because lots of the fans don't know the rules of the games exactly".

As in everything, she understates her achievements. Sonia Denoncourt, Head of Women's Refereeing at FIFA, puts it into perspective. "In 1994, there were only four women international referees on the Men's List - I was one of them. The first international women's referees list was drawn up in 1995, with about 20 women worldwide. This has increased rapidly since then. Today, there are 228 women referees in the world and 280 assistant referees - it is the one category of refereeing that is showing significant growth, year on year.

"Being a female referee is harder than being a male referee and there's a saying amongst us that you have to be twice as good as the men," Fatou often says with a placid smile.