Argentinian is one of three female referees set to make history in Qatar
Club World Cup will be her sixth FIFA tournament
Together with female colleague, she already made history in the Copa Libertadores
The day after officiating Independiente-Arsenal in the Argentinian top flight, Mariana de Almeida woke up early. She immediately noticed four missed calls from her husband Javier Uziga, an assistant referee like her. Knowing he should be driving back from a match in Parana, she worriedly returned his call. However, when Javier answered, he was euphoric.
You're going to the Club World Cup, Mariana! To the Club World Cup!
"I didn't understand what he was saying, as I hadn't yet seen my messages or the e-mail with the official designation," De Almeida tells FIFA.com with a laugh, just hours before embarking for Qatar. "I had no indication so, apart from being surprised, I felt enormous happiness and pride," adds the 38-year-old assistant referee.
De Almeida, together with Brazilians Edina Alves Batista (referee) and Neuza Back (assistant referee), will be the first women to form part of the refereeing team at a FIFA Club World Cup when they officiate at the rescheduled 2020 edition from 4-11 February.
"On a personal level, I see it as recognition of my career and another nice vote of confidence in me and my work – all within the context of seeing more and more female referees called up for men's tournaments. That wasn’t happening when I started out, so hopefully it’ll encourage more girls and women to take up refereeing."
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 06: Mariana Almeida, assistant referee in action during the match between Canada and Zimbabwe womens football for the summer olympics at Arena Corinthians on August 6, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - MARCH 09: Referee Maria Laura Fortunato and assistant one Mariana Almeida (L) and assistant two Analia Caballero (R) gets into the pitch during a match between Boca Juniors and Lanús as part of Zona Campeonato of the Women's First Division at Alberto J. Armando Stadium non March 09, 2019 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is the first official women's football match played at La Bombonera. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)
So how did De Almeida first get involved in football? "Well, I had no family influence and I'm not a good player, but I’ve always liked it. I’d go to watch any game I could, especially with high school friends. That’s why I decided to pursue something sport-related."
Consequently, she began studying sports journalism in 2000. "One of the classes was on refereeing, the laws of the game more than anything, and I liked it. However, I felt that if I was going to be a woman with opinions on this, then I needed a deeper understanding," she explains.
"So, I told my professor, a former referee, and he thought it was a good idea. He recommended I take the course at the Argentine Association of Referees. ‘You’ll discover a whole new side of things there,’ he told me, and he was right!”
De Almeida did not encounter concern or prejudice from any quarter. "A secretary took my application, and I felt really good from the first minute. No one looked at me weirdly or asked me what I was doing there. That said, there weren't many girls in the school of journalism either, so it all felt normal."
Then the practical part of the course came around. "That's where I really started to enjoy it and began thinking of it as a possible career. At the time I was doing an internship for a sports daily, but I knew I couldn’t juggle both. So, I opted for refereeing."
However, the prospect of being the on-field official did not appeal. "I really liked to collaborate with the referee and fulfil that supporting role that sometimes becomes primary, because our decisions are important. I loved how the action appeared from the sidelines!"
De Almeida considers herself to have been fortunate in her profession. “Nothing very strange has happened to me, nor have I ever left the field in tears vowing never to return. Quite the opposite, in fact.” That didn't happen even when she began refereeing underage teams in 2006 as an approved AFA match official. "Mothers were glad to see a woman, though they would then be angry if a decision didn’t go their way (laughs)."
Humour also came in handy in dealing with some funny situations she experienced along the way, such as when the sidelines were very close to the stands. "I’d take out my notecard to write down something, and someone would shout out their phone number... I couldn't help laughing."
When refereeing, De Almeida makes no distinction between men and women. "There’s just one set of rules. In Argentina, I know a lot of the women players, as we grew up together! The same with the guys. There's respect on the pitch. We stopped being an unusual sight a long time ago."
While she has been a FIFA assistant referee since 2008, her first FIFA tournament was the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in 2012, an event she still remembers fondly. "Over and above the excitement, I was the reserve assistant referee for the final, so I was also given an official flag, which I've been using ever since."
The Argentinian later took part in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™, the 2016 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio de Janeiro and the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Uruguay, before appearing at her second senior Women’s World Cup in 2019, where she formed part of the VAR team for the final. "It was a privilege that they trusted me with a tool I’d only recently come into contact with."
De Almeida was part of another landmark achievement in September 2020, when, together with compatriot Daiana Milone, they became the first female match officials to form part of a refereeing team for Copa Libertadores duty (Editor's note: the Copa Sudamericana had earlier featured female officials before the pandemic disrupted the event).
As fate would have it, she was assigned Racing Club-Nacional, a major fixture. "It's true that we were called up because of COVID related withdrawals, but they trusted us even though we hadn't been officiating in seven months, not to mention that we assistant refs came from the same country as the home team. That Libertadores call-up was later validated by subsequent ones when COVID was not a factor," she tells us.
After officiating at the first professional final of the Argentinian Women’s Championship between Boca Juniors and River Plate, De Almeida is fully focused on Qatar. "There are a few nerves, but I want to enjoy it in spite of the responsibility." She reveals that she is in a WhatsApp group with the aforementioned Alves Batista and Back "to talk exclusively about the World Cup. I know them, having done VAR support for both of them at the World Cup and seen them at other tournaments, without ever working the same games."
Looking beyond the Club World Cup, De Almeida is clear about what she wants for the future. "I’d like to officiate for as long as my body permits, which could be longer now that VAR has opened up another possible avenue for me. Aside from my goals, I’d like to see a female referee at the Copa America or at Qatar 2022. Those are opportunities to open doors and pave the way for generations to come."
Being married to another assistant referee. "We support, help and understand each other, although we’ve sometimes gone to bed angry after disagreeing about some decision."
The Laws of the Game. "I keep a paper copy of each edition and like to have the latest one to hand in case I need to mark it or look for what I need."
Memorabilia. "I hold on to a lot of shirts, including the one I wore the very first time I refereed, which was in a boys five-a-side league."
Memorabilia (II). "I have the yellow cards I carried on my debuts in each category, and all the FIFA badges I’ve worn."