The World Cup in Qatar was always going to be a World Cup of firsts. The first time sport’s most-watched event is to be played in the Middle East. The first time it will be in November and December. And now it may also be the first men’s World Cup to have a game refereed by a woman.
FIFA, the world soccer governing body on Wednesday named three women among the 36 referees chosen to officiate at the event and three more in the group of assistants that will run the line at the monthlong tournament. The most likely candidate among the three to get a starring role is Stephanie Frappart, a French woman who has broken a number of barriers in European soccer.
Frappart, who made the list alongside female referees from Rwanda and Japan, has a stellar reputation in European soccer, becoming the first women to referee men in the Champions League, France’s top division and World Cup qualification games. She made history again earlier this month when she took charge of the French cup final.
Frappart was also chosen to join the officiating teams at last summer’s European Championship but her role was limited to that of fourth official, a function on the sidelines of the game between the benches of the opposing teams.
In announcing its refereeing choices, FIFA may now look to go one step further. Joining Frappart in the refereeing group are Salima Mukansanga from Rwanda and Yoshimi Yamashita from Japan. They, and the other World Cup-bound officials, will attend seminars in preparation for the 32-team event.
“This concludes a long process that began several years ago with the deployment of female referees at FIFA men’s junior and senior tournaments. In this way, we clearly emphasize that it is quality that counts for us and not gender,” said Pierluigi Collina, the 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 regular in Major League Soccer, is joined by Karen Díaz Medina of Mexico. Neuza Back from Brazil is also included.
For FIFA, the push to include more women on and off the field has become increasingly urgent amid greater scrutiny of how it manages the sport and a growing global interest in women’s soccer. More money than ever has been invested in developing players and match officials. That, Collina said, should help make the sight, and inclusion, of female referees less of talking point than it remains today.
“I would 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 as sensational. They deserve to be at the FIFA World Cup because they constantly perform at a really high level, and that’s the important factor for us,” he said.
Still, the environment and focus on female officials can be exacting. Frappart faced a torrent of abusive messages on social media before and after she officiated the French cup game, in a game that was won after a penalty call.
Frappart said before that game that she stays away from social media and rarely reads the press.
“Personally, I am focused on what happens on the pitch and don’t pay attention to controversies or discussions about my performances,” she said.