Vision of equality fueling Seitz's mission to elevate women referees

6 Mar 2021
  • Kari Seitz is FIFA's Head of Refereeing, Women

  • A pioneering referee, she's now focused on taking officiating to the next level

  • She talks about her vision of true gender equality in refereeing across the globe

Kari Seitz's first experience as a referee was absolutely terrible. Why she kept coming back to it, she can’t articulate. Sticking with it, though, has led to an incredible career on the field, and now off it too, as FIFA’s Head of Refereeing, Women.

Kari started officiating at 14 years old. Her first assignment was a U-12 boy’s game and the fans and coaches behaved badly. For some reason she came back for more.

Soon after she was invited to a youth tournament, where she officiated another U-12 boys’ game. At 11-0, a player rugby tackled an opponent, grabbing him, dragging him down and tearing the whole shirt off his back. She didn’t hesitate to give the red card, but the fans – mainly adults – went crazy and she had to be escorted off the field by security.

At this point, she assumed she had made a terrible mistake. Contemplating the end of her career before it had even begun at home that evening, she got a call from the tournament director inviting her back the next day to do the final. He was impressed with her decision-making and courage to do the “right thing”.

Thirty-six years later, Seitz is now FIFA's Head of Refereeing, Women. She took time out of her schedule to chat with FIFA.com about how refereeing has formed who she is as a person, what makes a great referee, and her vision and goals for women in refereeing at the top level.

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - JULY 03:  Referee Kari Seitz of USA makes a point during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 Group D match between Brazil and Norway at Wolfsburg Arena on July 3, 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

FIFA.com: When did you realise that you wanted to become a top-level referee? What was that moment like?

Kari Seitz: In 1994 the FIFA World Cup came to the USA. I was sitting at the midfield line at the opening game in Chicago. When the referee walked out on to the field, I will never forget it. I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a World Cup referee.' It didn’t occur to me or even cross my mind that there were only men. I just knew I was going to dedicate myself to become a World Cup referee. Essentially the FIFA World Cup in 1994 set my life’s course.

How much has refereeing formed who you are as a person?

The truth is, refereeing has been very formative to who I am as a person. When I got my first job out of college (Seitz was an advertising executive for 27 years), I had already been refereeing for many years. I graduated with a pool of people with the same degree as me. Within a year I had already been promoted, while it took my peers several years. I attribute that to refereeing. As a referee, you have to be accountable, responsible, a people manager, apply teamwork and have courage to take decisions. All great skills for football, for life and for work. Even simple things like looking someone in the eye while shaking their hands and projecting a sense of confidence – all those things helped me in my job. It helped me mature a lot faster and be successful in my work.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04: Fifa Women's World Cup project manager Kari Seitz and Chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee Pierluigi Collina speaks to the media during a FIFA referees training session ahead of the Women's World Cup France 2019 on June 04, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

What makes a great referee?

You must have a sense of justice and fairness. You have to be able to take criticism. You have to be able to see value in yourself when no-one else does. Of course, as well as athletic ability, you need a deep understanding and passion for the game. The best referees also have a little something extra that is difficult to define, but can be seen on the field.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04: Fifa Women's World Cup project manager Kari Seitz looks on during a FIFA referees training session ahead of the Women's World Cup France 2019 on June 04, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Why be a referee when the pressure can be so intense at times?

Being a referee is not for everyone. Ideally, I’d love to convince ex-players, people who have played the game to become referees. To be successful it’s not just about understanding the rules. Deep down, it’s about understanding football. That is incredibly important. When it comes to pressure, you have to be the kind of person that pressure makes you stronger. If you are becoming a referee because you love control, this is not the right job for you. That’s not the right reason to be a referee. It has to be about being on the pitch with the players and helping the game be better than it otherwise would be. That’s the role of the referee.

When you look back at your career, what are the moments you think of most?

I see my career as a series of highs and lows, but no individual game stands out to me. Rather it’s the life-long friends I’ve made. There are close friends of mine I see maybe once every ten years – refereeing people, part of my referee family. I have learned so much about people and cultures through football. I believe refereeing has made me a better person. One career highlight was my first selection for the Olympic Games in 2004. I was jumping around and crying when I got the call. In the US, you’re brought up to see the Olympics as the ultimate sporting event. To be appointed to this competition was an acknowledgement that I had reached the top. In the end, I was lucky enough to have this moment three times in my career.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04: Fifa Women's World Cup project manager Kari Seitz looks on during a FIFA referees training session ahead of the Women's World Cup France 2019 on June 04, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

How important is it to humanize referees more? What ways do you envision that being most effective?

Humanizing referees is incredibly important. The more that football fans, coaches and players understand that the referee's goal is not to make the game difficult – rather we are people whose purpose is to make the game fair and safe – the better. We have been trying to humanize the referees more, through lots of stories of incredible women's referees and leaders in women’s refereeing on FIFA.com. They are all very well-educated and had to make a lot of sacrifices to achieve their goals.

I also want to increase exposure for the work the referees do in preparation, week after week: fitness training, studying games, studying teams, studying videos. As well as the professional approach for preparation at all our FIFA competitions and seminars. You will not believe how professional the work environment is at these events. Referees go to the fields daily for training, with football players simulating game situations. Then they study the games and prepare for their upcoming match with a match analyst. Referees are always training both their fitness as well as their technical skills. We use technology to capture the situations and provide instant feedback to the match officials to help make improvements immediately. Anyone who sees it is blown away. People have the right to criticize referees as we are not perfect. However, they just need to do it in a respectful way and understand there are real people behind the badge, working hard to do their best.

What was the journey like to becoming the Head of Refereeing for Women at FIFA?

While I was appointed to four World Cups and three Olympics, I left refereeing disappointed. It has been my goal since to do more to prove the power of gender equality. I had hoped to make a difference as a referee. For most of my career I refereed men’s football and worked way my way up to the top men’s division in the USA. However, when the women’s professional league started, it was decided that the women referees were to focus on the new women’s league. Women referees didn’t take a whistle in the top division again for 20 years.

The position at FIFA as a Head of Refereeing has given me the chance to really focus on driving the necessary change towards gender equality. I jumped head-first into this new role. It really allows me to accomplish my goal in a way I wasn’t able to do as a referee. Having the opportunity to promote the qualities of women referees around the world is a dream come true. I am so lucky and honoured to have this opportunity and I want to do everything possible to move the ball forward.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04: Fifa Women's World Cup project manager Kari Seitz speaks to referees during a FIFA referees training session ahead of the Women's World Cup France 2019 on June 04, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

What were some of your goals when you set out in this job, and how do you assess where those stand now?

Specifically, I see my role as an advocate for women referees, to support and promote gender equality in refereeing, help more women referees achieve their goals and be a positive example of what is possible. Of course, this is not one person’s job, and it requires a shared vision among many key stakeholders, men and women alike, to support this change. Including FIFA leadership, FIFA refereeing leadership and Confederation refereeing Leadership.

In the last 18 months, we have seen women referees in the top competitions in all confederations. Most well-known maybe was the UEFA Champions League, but also at the CHAN in CAF, the Concacaf League, Copa SudAmerica etc. Women have now refereed at two men’s FIFA U-17 World Cups and most recently a trio officiated at a first-ever senior event, the FIFA Club World Cup. In the last 18 months we have also seen women promoted to top leagues around the world – for example Ligue 1 in France, the MLS, A-League and Brasileiro Serie A. Very significant changes. The door has been opened and we are seeing many quality women walking through. I am very proud of all the work and sacrifices these women have made.

When we started the project ‘Road to France’, we asked each country to commit more resources, time and effort to develop their women referees. Many took on the challenge and it showed in the referee performances in 2019. But not all countries met their responsibilities. Now for the project ‘Road to Australia/New Zealand’, we are demanding more resources, time and effort to develop women referees. This time we are seeing a more positive reaction. After the success of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 and the success of women referees in these top men’s competitions, there is a new level of enthusiasm to support women refereeing.

It starts with the people at the top taking women referee development seriously. Then the women have to do the work. I don’t want women appointed because they’re women. They need to earn the positions, pass the fitness tests and be technically capable. There has really been a huge change already. The sky is the limit. There is no stopping us now and I can’t wait to see what many more great accomplishments are ahead for women referees and women referee coaches, instructors, observers and administrators.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - AUGUST 14: Match referee, Stephanie Frappart disallows the goal scored by Christian Pulisic of Chelsea during the UEFA Super Cup match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Vodafone Park on August 14, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

This article is part of our series focused on women’s football, and women in football, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2021. To find out more about FIFA’s Women’s Football Strategy and Development Programmes, and to read more articles like this, click here.