Wone year after the Football Association transferred responsibility for match officials for the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship to Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL). There is still no timetable for the full professionalisation of female referees operating at the top two levels of women’s football, despite the clamor to improve, but passionate and trailblazing referee Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb is leading the charge.
Having started refereeing in the Frauen Bundesliga in 1999, the 43-year-old German became the first woman to referee in the men’s Bundesliga in the 2017-18 season. She now oversees refereeing in England.
She says: “The English competition is some of the strongest in the world and it definitely attracted me to this job, as well as Kelly Simmons. [the FA’s head of the women’s professional game] and mike riley [general manager of the PGMOL]who have been very convincing about the structures and investment that they are willing to put in place and the future image that they shared with me.
“If that hadn’t happened, I probably would have stayed somewhere else. So it’s not just the dedication they’ve shown, it’s the will to change that attracted me.”
A change is needed. With games now broadcast across BBC Sport, Sky Sports and FA Player, refereeing in the women’s game is under increased scrutiny. The game is growing, but the development of refereeing has not kept pace.
“The game has developed a lot in recent years,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “I’m not surprised where it is and I’m not surprised by the coverage and the content because it’s exciting, exciting…
“But I think we have invested so much in the players, in the coaches, in the venues and the referees that it has not really been an issue. So it seems unfair to me to expect referees to keep up with the speed of the game. We have to get there, but you need the support and a little bit of time to keep up.”
Steinhaus-Webb describes the placement of referees for women’s football under the wing of the PGMOL as “a big first step towards professionalizing the workforce in women’s football” and that “human resources [needed] taking care of professional athletes is something totally different.”
Referees working in women’s football now have access to the same support structure as those working in men’s football. “The support structure around the referees is crucial,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “It takes so many different layers to make sure a referee is the best he can get to three o’clock.”
This includes a fitness team, psychological support, individual referee coaches, technical support, and access to many hours of footage of the men’s and women’s pyramids.
The psychological element is increasingly important. “We had a situation in Manchester City vs Arsenal when the ball hit the referee and a few seconds after City scored,” says Steinhaus-Webb. “Abi Byrne was the referee… We talked about this incident for days and days, weeks and weeks. Abi is an international referee with a really strong mentality and a huge amount of experience.
“From a technical point of view he did everything correctly, he hit the ball, the ball stayed inside the same team, almost inside his own penalty area, so it is not a promising attack and he let the game continue. But then, the way the game went, they scored at the other end a few seconds later.
“From now on, expect every referee to blow the whistle. Going through this, the scrutiny, was the first time he really realized how much exposure the game has. [We must] take care of our people. They are human beings and we have to make sure they are in a state of mind to be ready to make 300 decisions or so in every match.”
For female referees operating in women’s football it can be difficult to find the time to distribute all this variable support around their work schedules and “buy more and more time from female referees” to allow them to be in the best place to make the most of it. . the next step.
Says Steinhaus-Webb, “Some of the officials are already under contract, so it’s really about how much can we increase these contracts and how much can we see others joining them. It is a personal decision too. Where are you on your journey? Are you a 20-year-old looking for a full-time professional career in football or are you in the fall of your career where you have to balance things in a different way? This is a very individual question to answer.”
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However, is there a risk that with the professionalism of players pushing the game forward, refereeing will require accelerated growth to keep pace?
“We all want to develop the game in the best possible way and there is a certain amount of money in the game, and you have to prioritize where you want to put it and what you do first. Now, referees are a big part of this.
“Yes, the game has developed tremendously and the whole group of referees may not be at the highest level yet, but what we have is a number of referees who can easily catch up with the game and are at a very high level. even higher. The questions are: how do we support the whole group of people, the whole group of officials to get there as well?