From soil-collector to semi-final commander
Edina Alves Batista overcame huge hurdles to become a football referee
Brazilian took charge of England-USA France 2019 semi-final
Edina’s dream is to referee in a major men’s international tournament
‘Damn,’ thought Edina as the shrieking siren of her alarm pestered her ears at 5am. The 19-year-old had only had a few hours’ sleep, her body ached from a backbreaking shift at work, and here was the drumfire that signalled another day on her hands and knees, often under the scorching Brazilian sun, filling sack of soil after sack of soil at a seeding nursery was set to start.
“We were scheduled to start at 6:30am, but if we wanted to earn a little bit extra, the boss let us get there a bit earlier,” Edina told FIFA.com. “It’s obviously low-paid work, so you had to fill up a lot of sacks to earn anything, and I was going to do anything to get the money I needed.”
For some designer clothes? A car? Her first trip out of the state in which she was born? Not quite.
“I’d always played futsal and football,” said the proud native of Goioerê, Parana. “I represented the county at futsal. But it’s a small county in the middle of nowhere – back in the ‘90s becoming a footballer wasn’t any sort of possibility.
“In 1999, my friend’s father invited me to try out as an assistant referee in an amateur game. I instantly fell in love with the adrenaline involved in officiating a football match. I knew at that moment officiating was my life.
“I quickly applied to do an officiating course, but it was expensive and I had no money. Everyone told me to forget it, that football was not for women, but I was willing to do anything.
“I was still at school in the evening, studying to become a physical education teacher, and I was [referee] training on afternoons, so I needed a job I could start early. Filling bags of soil at the seed nursery fit the bill. I would start work early, rush to training in the afternoon, then go to school.
“Of course it was exhausting but every day I was filling those bags of soil, I was doing so thinking, ‘This is going to help me do what I most want: referee football matches’. I did it for almost two years because everything turned out to be more expensive than I imagined.
“It wasn’t just the course [fee]. I had to pay for travel. Sometimes we had to travel 550 kilometres just for one class. It was every weekend."
Those backbreaking endeavours felt worth it when Edina began taking charge of school matches and then amateur games in Parana state. All the while, she studied and trained towards becoming a CBF referee, and in 2007 Edina thought she’d had her big break.
“The [state] refereeing director called me and said I’d been selected to take the CBF’s physical fitness examination,” she recalled. “I was so excited. I’d got myself in good enough shape to pass not just the women’s physical fitness examination, but the men’s, so I knew I would pass.
“But then he explained that it was to be an assistant referee. Each state could send one person to try out as a main referee, and two to try out as assistant referees, and he’d already selected a main referee. I was absolutely gutted.”
Edina’s dream almost perished that day. She almost did the following year. Edina was undertaking a 500km drive in the early hours of the morning when another vehicle whammed into her car, smashing it into umpteen pieces.
“I almost died,” Edina said. “I was in intensive care for four days. Football inspired me to get through it. All I could think about was refereeing a game.
“It’s the first thing I asked about. The doctors said I wouldn’t be able to referee for a long, long time, but I kept pestering my boss to give me a game and eventually he gave in. Three months after the accident I was back refereeing.”
Edina nonetheless remained undiscovered refereeing gold until a chance meeting with Sergio Correa, then president of the CBF Refereeing Committee, in 2014 – and a cheeky push from her fellow official, Neuza Back.
“He asked me why I wanted to become a referee,” said Edina. “I responded, ‘It’s everything I want in my life.'
“He told me that, because I was already an aspiring FIFA assistant referee, I would have to start from scratch, studying and training to be a main referee. I think he thought it would put me off, but I didn’t think twice and said ‘absolutely’.
“The most difficult part was that I needed the director of officiating in Parana state to send a document to the CBF informing them of my change. He told me I should stay put, asked me, ‘Where do you think you’ll end up? You’re 34-years-old.’
“I told him it didn’t matter where I ended up, that I wanted to referee, that it has always been my dream. Thankfully he sent the document.”
Astonishingly, just five years later, in May 2019, Edina became the first female in 14 years to referee a men’s top-flight game in Brazil. Not that she had much time to bask in that – that same month she flew out, along with her assistants Neuza and Tatiana Sacilotti, to work at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™.
And Edina wasn’t just one of 75 officials at that tournament, but one of 11 referees maintained for the quarter-finals onwards and the woman tasked with taking charge of a blockbuster semi-final between England and USA.
“It was unbelievable,” Edina said of her experience. “When I thought back to everything that had happened, all I’d been through, I didn’t regret a single thing. A World Cup is a historic event.
“When Neuza suggested my name [in 2014], all I wanted was to be the main referee in one game in the men’s Serie A in Brazil. To be at the World Cup, I was so, so grateful.
“I remember on the flight to France, I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. I remember when I blew the whistle for my first game, New Zealand against the Netherlands, the feeling was amazing – that’s when I truly felt like a World Cup referee.
“And to be given the semi-final, between two great nations, I was so, so happy. It was beyond a dream.”
Edina has more dreams before she hangs up her whistle.
“I intend to carry on for another three years, four maximum. I only want to referee when I’m at my best physically and able to do my best on the pitch.
“It would be incredible to go to the next Olympics – it’s something we’ll have to continue working very hard for. But my biggest, biggest dream is to referee a game at a major men’s competition.”