The World Cup in Qatar was always going to be a World Cup of firsts. The first time the most watched sporting event will be played in the Middle East. The first time will be played in November and December. And now it may also be the first men’s World Cup to have a match refereed by a woman.
FIFA on Wednesday named three women from among the 36 referees chosen to officiate at the event and three more from the pool of assistants who will man the line at the month-long tournament. The most likely candidate among the three to land a leading role is Stephanie Frappart, a Frenchwoman who has broken several barriers in European football.
Frappart, who made the list along with referees from Rwanda and Japan, has a stellar reputation in European football by becoming the first women to referee men in the Champions League, the French top division and qualifying matches for the world Cup. She made history again earlier this month when she took charge of the French Cup final.
Frappart was also chosen to join the referee teams at last summer’s European Championships, but her role was limited to that of fourth official, a role on the sidelines of the game between the opposing teams’ benches.
By announcing its arbitration options, FIFA can now look to go a step further. Joining Frappart in the pool of referees are Salima Mukansanga from Rwanda and Yoshimi Yamashita from Japan. They, and the other officials traveling to the World Cup, will attend preparatory seminars for the 32-team event.
“This concludes a long process that began several years ago with the deployment of female referees to FIFA junior and senior men’s tournaments. In this way, we clearly emphasize that it is quality that counts for us and not gender,” said Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee.
North American women have also been selected to participate in the tournament as assistant referees. Kathryn Nesbitt, now a Major League Soccer regular, joins Karen Diaz Medina from Mexico. Neuza Back from Brazil is also included.
For FIFA, the push to include more women on and off the pitch has become increasingly urgent amid heightened scrutiny of how it runs the sport and growing global interest in women’s football. More money than ever has been invested in the development of players and referees. That, Collina said, should help make the view and inclusion of female referees less of a talking point than it remains today.
“I hope that, in the future, the selection of elite women’s match officials for important men’s competitions will be perceived as something normal and no longer something sensational. They deserve to be in the FIFA World Cup because they consistently perform at a very high level, and that is the important factor for us,” she said.
Still, the environment and the focus on female officers can be demanding. Frappart faced a torrent of abusive messages on social media before and after refereeing the Coupe de France match, in a match he won on a penalty.
Frappart said before that game that she stays away from social media and rarely reads the press.
“Personally, I focus on what’s happening on the field and don’t pay attention to controversies or discussions about my performances,” he said.