Football referees generally need a thick skin. This is especially true for women who officiate men’s games – like the six referees who will be used at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Was it really just a misunderstanding? When Brazilian Neuza Ines Back was last at a football match in Qatar, she was part of the refereeing team for the final of the 2021 Club World Cup, FIFA’s most important club tournament. The back had officiated games at the highest level, including the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. In the final in Al Rayyan, in which the then Champions League winners FC Bayern won 1-0 against the Mexican top club Tigres, the Brazilian was assigned as reserve referee – alongside the fourth official, her compatriot Alves Batista.
At the award ceremony, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, held out his fist in a jovial salute to the players and male officials who filed past him. But as Back and Batista reached him, Al Thani looked past the two women as if they were nothing. Islamic law prohibits men from touching women who are not part of their immediate family. But it doesn’t stop them from being polite by lowering their gaze or choosing other gestures that don’t involve touch.
The video of the incident went viral. The organizers stressed that there was a “minor misunderstanding” related to the COVID-19 hygiene protocols. However, critics saw the incident as a further indication that the Gulf state with its strict laws is actually unsuitable for hosting sporting events of a global dimension.
Six women, 123 men
Brazilian Back will return to Qatar in November. The 37-year-old is one of six women in the 129-strong referee team for the World Cup. Like the American Kathryn Nesbitt and the Mexican Karen Diaz Medina, Back is planned as an assistant. France’s Stephanie Frappart, Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita, and Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga are scheduled to officiate World Cup games.
This is a first at a men’s World Cup. And that of all things at a final that is more controversial than almost any other before. Human rights organizations accuse the Qatar government of “sports washing”: The glamor of the World Cup is intended to distract attention from the human rights violations in the country, including discrimination against women. Even if the proportion of women among the World Cup referees is just under five percent, experts consider the step important. Especially in a country where women – as happened at the Club World Cup final – are often quite literally overlooked.
“That this is happening in Qatar is a powerful statement,” said Erin Blankenship, co-founder of Equal Playing Field. The non-profit organization is committed to a stronger role for women in sports. “I don’t expect us to have a 50/50 gender quota at a World Cup,” Blankenship told DW. “But we should get there so that it doesn’t matter what gender you are: if you can do the job, you should also have the right to be on the pitch. That’s the goal.”
Climbing invisible mountains
Not everyone is happy about female referees at a football World Cup. Men in particular often make fun of female referees. Stephanie Frappart can sing a song about that. The 37-year-old has long been one of the best referees in France. In 2019, Frappart became the first woman to officiate a men’s UEFA final: the Super Cup final between Liverpool FC and Chelsea. In 2020, Frappart was also the first female referee to referee a Champions League game: Juventus Turin against Dynamo Kyiv.
The Frenchwoman has also been on the referee list of the world association FIFA for more than ten years. She officiated the exciting final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, in which the US team led by Megan Rapinoe defeated the European champions, the Netherlands, 2-0. And yet former France international Jérôme Rothen criticized Frappart’s appointment for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The referee was “not up to the task,” said the 44-year-old on a radio show.
“People who say things like that think that women will never be good enough for men’s games,” counters Erin Blankenship. “The women athletes who have come this far are usually women who are ready to fight back. And who have scaled many invisible mountains.”
Nervous but determined
While Frappant continues to struggle with chauvinism in France, her colleague Salima Mukansanga faces very different challenges in Rwanda. Referees, regardless of whether they are men or women, are enemy images for most fans. Even her own father verbally abused the officials when his team lost, says the 33-year-old. On the other hand, she herself always saw the most important people on the field in the referees because they guided the players. When she left school at age 15, Mukansanga began refereeing football games. She worked her way through the leagues of Rwanda up to international tournaments. Earlier this year, she made headlines as the first female referee at the men’s Africa Cup of Nations: Mukansanga officiated two games of the tournament in Cameroon.
The referee admitted to DW that she was nervous before the game between Zimbabwe and Guinea kicked off. The pressure to whistle at such an important men’s tournament was higher than usual. Also because many people in her home country of Rwanda were enthusiastic about her work and observed her very closely. As the game played, Mukansanga completely tuned out the audience – and conquered their fear. When a forward touched her arm condescendingly and advised her to reconsider sending his teammate a yellow card, the referee replied: “Do you want one too?” The player then snuck away.