The Qatar World Cup has always been full of firsts: the first time it will be held in the Middle East; the first time it will be played in November and December. Now it could also be the first men’s World Cup tournament in which a game is chaired by a woman.
FIFA on Thursday named three women among the 36 referees selected for the tournament and three more in the group of assistants who will oversee the month-long tournament. The most likely candidate of the three for a leading role is Stéphanie Frappart from France, who has broken a number of barriers in European football.
Frappart, who made the list alongside referees from Rwanda and Japan, has a solid reputation in European football for being the first woman to referee men in the Champions League, France’s top flight and World Cup qualifiers. This month she refereed the men’s French Cup final.
Frappart was also appointed to the referee teams at last summer’s European Championships, but her role was limited to that of fourth official, a function on the sidelines between opposing teams’ benches.
With the announcement of their choice of referees, FIFA could now go one step further. Alongside Frappart in the panel of judges are Salima Mukansanga from Rwanda and Yoshimi Yamashita from Japan. She and the other World Cup officials will attend seminars in preparation for the 32-team event.
“This completes a long process that began a few years ago with the use of women referees in FIFA men’s youth and senior tournaments,” said Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee. “By doing so, we are clearly emphasizing that quality counts for us and not gender.”
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North American women have also been selected to participate in the tournament as assistant referees. Major League Soccer regular Kathryn Nesbitt will be joined by Mexico’s Karen Díaz Medina. Neuza Back from Brazil is also there.
For FIFA, the quest to include more women on and off the field is becoming increasingly urgent as the way it manages the sport comes under closer scrutiny and global interest in women’s football grows. More money than ever has been invested in developing players and match officials. That, Collina said, should help ensure that the sight and involvement of female referees is less of a topic of conversation than it is today.
“I would like the selection of the elite women’s officials for important men’s competitions in the future to be perceived as something normal and no longer a sensation,” he said. “They deserve to be at the FIFA World Cup because they consistently play at a really high level and that’s the most important factor for us.”
Still, the environment and focus on women officers can be challenging. Frappart was faced with abusive messages on social media before and after her management of the French Cup match, which was decided after a penalty shootout.
Frappart said ahead of this game that she stayed away from social media and rarely read the press. “I personally focus on what’s happening on the pitch and don’t pay attention to controversy or discussion about my performances,” she said.
That the opportunity for the first women officials to take part in a World Cup is taking place in a conservative Gulf country like Qatar adds to the allure. Some facilities and restaurants in the tiny emirate are segregated, and groups of men are not allowed into areas reserved for women or families. However, stadiums will be open without such restrictions.
FIFA continues to innovate when it comes to running their multi-billion dollar tournament. The last two editions of the tournament featured goal-line technology. Most recently, FIFA introduced video assistant referees in Russia, largely without affecting the flow of the game.
VAR was also used at the last Women’s World Cup in France in 2019, but its use, mainly due to running costs, is not yet universal in sport. For this reason, FIFA said, the teams at the controls come mainly from Europe and South America.
The selection of referees for the tournament has been complicated by the pandemic and that’s partly why FIFA made its announcements earlier than usual. “We want to work even harder with all those nominated for the FIFA World Cup and monitor them over the coming months,” said Collina, a former World Cup final referee. “The message is clear: don’t rest on your laurels, keep working hard and prepare very seriously for the World Cup.”
FIFA also strives to ensure its officials can keep up with players who are fitter than ever. For this, the organization said it would provide each official with a plan to follow in order to arrive in Qatar in peak condition. “Each match official will be carefully monitored over the next few months and a final assessment of the technical, physical and medical aspects will be made just before the World Cup,” said Massimo Busacca, FIFA director of refereeing.
But for all the work, all the focus, a referee’s fate could be determined by one bad decision.
“We cannot eliminate all errors, but we will do everything we can to reduce them,” said Busacca.